Studies show people with medical conditions such as heart
disease, mental illness, or other chronic
diseases are most vulnerable to the negative consequences of stress, but
healthy people are also at a risk.
The link between stress and heart-related problems has been
widely studied, and researchers say that mental stress increases the body's
demand for oxygen by raising blood
pressure and heart rate. For people who already suffer from heart
disease, this additional burden can increase the risk of heart
attack, stroke, and even death.
When she needs relief from the grind of delivering major proposals, Dana Marlowe, 33, of Washington, D.C., makes some noise. "I cruise right into my toddler’s playroom, and I just jam out with his toys -- the xylophone, the baby piano. I almost have 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' down," says Marlowe, a technology accessibility consultant.
This kind of casual music-making can short-circuit the stress response, research shows, and keep it from becoming chronic. Stress starts in the brain and then...
Stress can also act as a trigger for heart attack or stroke in
people with undiagnosed heart disease, according to David S. Krantz, PhD,
chairman of the department of medical and clinical psychology at Uniformed
Services University in Bethesda, Md.
He says stress can set off dangerous plaque ruptures in people
who may not know that they're in the early stages of atherosclerosis, or
hardening of the arteries, and those ruptures can lead to potentially
life-threatening events like heart attacks or strokes.
Steven Tovian, PhD, director of health psychology at Evanston
Northwestern Healthcare in Evanston, Ill., says stress also directly affects a
part of the nervous system that controls the glands, heart, digestive
system, respiratory system, and skin.
That means any pre-existing medical condition that is
influenced by a nervous system response such as chronic pain, IBS (irritable
bowel syndrome), digestive
disorders, or headaches is likely to become exacerbated by stress when the
already overworked system becomes overloaded by additional stress.
In addition, Tovian says anyone with anyone who suffers from a
history of mental illness, such as depression and anxiety, is also at risk for
a worsening of symptoms at times of extreme stress.
Attitude Is Everything
But you don't have to be ill to suffer from the effects of
stress on your physical as well as mental health. Stress can also make healthy
people more vulnerable to sickness by weakening the immune system and making it
easier to catch a cold or other contagious illness.
Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, says what happens is that certain
components of the immune system become less effective at fighting off illness,
especially those caused by viruses, when exposed to stress over days or weeks.
But she says attitude plays a critical role in tempering that reaction.
"The main principle is that the effect on the immune system
is not a factor of what's happening in the environment, but it's an effect of
your perception of it," says Segerstrom, who is assistant professor of
psychology at the University of Kentucky. "To the degree that you feel
threatened or overwhelmed, the immune system will be affected more."
Segerstrom says that people who focus only on negative
information to the exclusion of more positive information will perceive more
stress and, therefore, suffer more serious consequences in their mental and
physical health. That's why it's important to keep a balanced perspective on
events going on in the world as well as closer to home.