People who are vulnerable to anxiety tend to go through a particular set of routines when they enter a potentially intimidating situation. Rather like tuning a radio, they scan rapidly and broadly in order to identify possible threats. These potential threats are then tuned into and the ‘volume' is turned up in terms of their heightened state of arousal. The whole process involves a psychological interpretation of events but it also feeds into, and feeds off, changes in the body.
When something is appraised as potentially threatening, a part of the nervous system, called the sympathetic nervous system, kicks in. A rush of adrenaline and noradrenaline floods the body. The heart rate quickens, sweating increases and pupils dilate. The body is ready for fight or flight - either of which is designed to reduce or prevent the perceived threat. Everyone is aware of these effects to some extent, but changes in the body don't necessarily stop. Many of these we are completely unaware of, including the influence they may have on health.
An anxiety provoking moment also triggers the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system. HPA produces a number of substances but the most important is cortisol. It is the combined effect of continued activation of the sympathetic nervous system and HPA activity that may have serious consequences for health.
Professor Jane Ogden, a health psychologist at the University of Surrey in the UK, states that prolonged production of adrenalin and noradrenalin can result in irregular heart beats, increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased risk of blood clot formation, fatty deposits and plaques and suppression of the immune system. The body becomes more prone to infection and the risk of heart and kidney disease increases. Prolonged HPA activation also appears to decrease immune function and leads to damage in a region of the brain known as the hippocampus. Over time, psychological issues such as loss of memory, loss of concentration and psychiatric problems may appear.
Other important factors have to be accounted for when considering the link between stress and illness. Stress is often a trigger for additional activities that have a direct effect on health. The most obvious of these are smoking, drinking alcohol, changes to diet and less exercise. The more that stress influences such activity the more likely it is that stress will lead to illness.
Ogden, J (2004) Health Psychology: a textbook (3rd ed) Open University Press.
Rachman, S (2004) Anxiety (2nd ed) Psychology Press.
Published On: May 01, 2009