Most of us are aware that there is a relationship between levels of stress and physical well-being. Under stressful conditions we take behavioural and physical (e.g. autonomic) action. Our brains become aroused and the nervous system is excited. High levels of corticosteroids are secreted in order to mobilise metabolic resources in the body. Under most circumstances we are able to avoid the stressor and hence reduce are levels of stress back down to tolerable levels. However, where we are unable to do this it results in a persistent state of arousal. For example, if we were working under a boss who made us feel under stress the whole time we might not be able to walk out because of the need for an income. In such cases our stress system would be working under ‘open loop’ conditions where there is no effective coping strategy. Hence the result is stress.
Cognitive processes play a role in stress. Some of these cognitive stressors include a disparity between an actual and an expected reward, the loss of something such as a job, difficulty balancing financial accounts, engaging in inner dialogues on failure and so on. These stressors are characterised by such features as ‘informational discrepancy’ or lack of cognitive or behavioural resources. Behavioural indices of stress might be reinforced by statements such as ‘I really feel that I cannot cope anymore’.
Physical disturbances such as stretching of the bladder or blood loss also result in an increase in corticosteroids.
Consequences of Stress
If we are stressed and in a sedentary position (e.g. we are angry at the boss but we cannot fight or flee) then fatty substances known as lipids which are released into the bloodstream cannot be fully metabolised and tend to gather on the walls of arteries. This is known as atherosclerosis.
Similarly, excessive levels of corticosteroids over a long period can damage the immune and nervous systems. There are interactions between the nervous, endocrine and immune systems, however, we should never assume that psychological factors are all-important and the causation of illnesses such as cancer. The psychological effect is only one of many that influence the immune system and so consequently can influence disease.
The Immune System
Stress can inhibit or ‘down-regulate’ the immune system. This has been noted with chronic stressors such as divorce, bereavement, sleep deprivation, exams, and war. However, stressors sometimes boost the immune system, or they can depress one part of the immune system but boost another. We must also consider that stressors can exert an effect on the immune system through other routes. For example, divorce or bereavement might result in less sleep, relaxation and exercise and an increase in cigarette and alcohol consumption which has an independent effect on disease. Also, by changes in physiology, some stressors can influence disease other than through the immune system. It is known for example that some stressors result in a reduction in saliva in the mouth which can reduce protection in the oral cavity (Evans et al., 1997).
Personality and Heart Disease
Friedman and Rosenman (1959) identified Type A and Type B personalities. A number of studies have found a significant correlation between Type A behaviour patterns and coronary heart disease. Type A is characterised by feeling under excessive time-pressure, aggressively competitive, overly-ambitious, and easily aroused to hostility by situations perceived as being trivial to Type B personalities. Type A’s also veer towards individualism and accomplishment which tend to promote isolation rather than interpersonal connection. They have a hyperactive sympathetic nervous system and an under-active parasympathetic nervous system. There is high secretion of corticosteroids and high blood cholesterol which results in a tendency towards heart attacks. Obviously not everyone is Type A or Type B but most people tend to exhibit aspects of each.
Not all Type A behaviour may be significant in the onset of heart disease. It would seem that hostility is the most important factor.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Ulcers
Irritable bowel syndrome is a disturbance of contractions of the gut organised by the enteric nervous system. Stress, whose effects are mediated via the central nervous system and the autonomic nervous system is a causal factor implicated in this.
Peptic ulcers would seem to be caused by an interaction of psychological factors and bacterial infection.
Ways To Stay Healthy
By recognising stress we can avoid situations that bring it about and maximise situations that bring about the opposite response. We can unlearn behaviour that brings about a hostile response.
Also, for some disorders social isolation poses a greater risk than for those who are happily socially integrated. Defence against stress is also provided by a happy social environment. Where people have a sense of belonging, they tend to form part of a social network that that is harmonious and gives them meaning in life and enables them to predict, control and cope. Goals become acceptable and attainable within a social network and the person values friendship above the acquisition of material resources (Friedman 1996).
Culture can also have a large impact. Japanese culture emphasises social interaction inter-dependence, stability and cohesion and group values far more than Western culture. This has been demonstrated to coincide with a decrease in coronary heart disease (by 5 times) amongst Japanese people who live a traditional lifestyle compared to Californians; both groups living in California (Marmot and Syme, 1976).
Meditation has been linked to a reduction in sympathetic nervous system domination and hyper-arousal (Bracke and Thoresen, 1996). The parasympathetic contribution is simultaneously strengthened.
Owning a pet also seems to have a positive correlation with mental health. Pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure and lower levels of fatty substances in the blood compared to non pet owners (Anderson et. al., 1992). There is no difference between types of pet so walking the dog cannot explain this phenomenon.
There is some (though rather weak) evidence that thinking positively can also help cancer patients.
Sustained aerobic exercise can actually help preventing heart disease and also alleviate depression and anxiety.
There are lot of alternative ways to alleviate stress. A massage once in a while is known eliminate stress and make a person more relaxed. Reiki is a form of healing which focuses on the sense of touch for healing purposes both physical and psychological.