When we feel threatened our bodies react by releasing stress hormones. Adrenaline and cortisol flood the body in order to get the heart going and boost energy levels. Once the crisis has passed we start to recover. The problem we have today is the fact that this fairly primitive mechanism is no match for the long-term stresses we endure as a result of modern life.
When stress hormones are released it comes at a cost. Cortisol has the effect of closing down the body’s natural repair systems in order to deal with the immediate problem. When released, it suppresses our ability to rest and dampens the immune system in favor of supplying energy. This can have long term implications for the body which include:
Reasoning and Memory. Long-term exposure to cortisol has a negative effect on reasoning skills and memory. Experiments with rats suggest that brain cells exposed to high levels of cortisol fire too frequently.
Blood Pressure. The genes know to influence the narrowing of blood vessels are affected by cortisol. The greater the supply of cortisol the more continuous the narrowing of vessels becomes. In turn, blood pressure starts to rise and the health risks associated with high blood pressure, notably heart disease and strokes, increase.
Bruxism. Otherwise known as grinding of the teeth, bruxism is associated with stress. Dentists have reported a 20 percent increase in cases of bruxism since the start of the global recession.
Depression. People with severe depression also have high levels of cortisol. Sustained high levels of cortisol suppresses neurotransmission in the brain.
Diet. One of the more contested areas of chronic stress involves the role of diet. Stress certainly seems to influence diet and there is some evidence pointing to elevated cortisol levels leading to obesity.
Infections. During long-term stress our immune system is depressed by the continuous levels of cortisol in the body. This weakens our immune system and increases the risk of infections. Once caught, infections can hang around for long periods of time.
Diseases. Relating once more to the long-term effects of stress on the immune system there is increasing evidence that some types of liver disease, lymphomas and cancers may develop as a result of the weakened immune system.
In this Sharepost I’ve touched on just a few of the physical problems that can emerge as a result of long term anxiety. There are in fact a whole series of health conditions that may occur as an indirect consequence of stress; alcohol drinking, smoking and drug misuse are just a few of the more obvious examples.
Yes, a few people seem to be able to thrive on stress. Why? It’s just a lucky combination of genes, upbringing and overall resilience. Perhaps more commonly there is the danger of people, quite literally, worrying themselves sick. We also don’t seem to grasp just how much time our bodies need to recover from the effects of stress. Because our lives are lived faster than ever before there is a sense that we can plug into things like ‘power naps’ and ‘rapid meditation’ in the way a person can recharge a battery. Unfortunately our bodies don’t work like that. Only by powering down our lives generally can we really begin to feel the benefit of reduced stress on both mind and body.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.