If there’s one modern malady that everyone seems to share, it’s stress. The demands of everyday life—working, parenting, fulfilling social obligations—can make even the most organized person feel overwhelmed.
To better understand how stress affects us, Dr. James Loomis, a physician specializing in internal medicine at St. Luke’s Hospital, takes us back to our prehistoric origins. “The human body has a built-in mechanism to deal with threat or stress—the ‘fight or flight’ response. When we are confronted with a perceived threat, say a leopard jumping out of a tree, our bodies are flooded with hormones which enable us to run faster or fight harder (adrenaline), then help us recover (cortisol).”
The problem is that leopards are no longer the threat. Instead, we worry about job security, finances, relationships, and caring for family members. “Although these modern stressors may not be as intense as confronting a leopard, they are oftentimes much more chronic,” Loomis says. “So, these hormones, which historically provided a survival advantage, can now turn against us if not channeled properly.”
It’s the ‘channeling properly’ that’s the challenge. “Stress can be a negative, neutral or positive experience, and everyone handles stress differently,” says Dr. Treena Sturgeon, a physician with Mercy Clinic Internal Medicine Crestwood. “Most of what makes stress ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is related to how each person responds and adapts to a stressful experience. Sometimes stress helps us to be more productive and stay focused. It can even help save our life in an emergency situation. Stress that is excessive or poorly managed can be harmful to your health.”
The short- and long-term effects of stress touch virtually every major system in our body. Stress-related symptoms we can feel include a rapid heartbeat and respiration, tight muscles, perspiration and digestive problems. Cognitive functions that may be compromised due to chronic stress include memory, concentration, mood, appetite and sleep patterns.
“It can be very difficult at times to distinguish between a stress-related ailment and a more serious health issue,” Sturgeon says. “I would encourage anyone with these symptoms to discuss them with your primary-care provider to help determine if the symptom is truly stress related or something more serious.”
Loomis offered a review of health problems that may be caused or exacerbated by stress:
• Cardiovascular: hypertension, blood clots, abnormal heartbeat, hardening of the arteries
• Pain: back, neck, fibromyalgia, headaches, other forms of chronic pain disorders
• Digestive: gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome
• Reproductive: low fertility, erectile dysfunction, pregnancy complications, menstrual pain
• Immune: compromised immunity and increased risk of infection
• Respiratory: asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
• Dermatologic: acne, psoriasis, eczema, hair loss
“Once your health care provider has determined that your symptoms are related to stress, there are several treatment options,” Loomis says. “These range from increased physical activity, which is probably the most important, to counseling and/or medications. In severe cases, a referral to a psychiatrist may be indicated. Medications are usually reserved for patients whose symptoms begin to interfere with their day-to-day activities, such as performance at work or interactions with family and friends.”
Sturgeon adds that stress’ negative effects may be at least somewhat relieved by changing stressful situations or environments if you are able, learning how to relax through meditation, yoga or exercise, and creating a good support system.
Loomis sums up: “In our fast-paced society, some level of chronic stress is a given. Learning to be challenged by that stress, instead of being threatened by it, is the key to its long-term management.”