Is Your Stress Level Affecting Your Health?

By Dr. Emilia A. Ripoll, M.D.

No matter who you are or what you do, regardless of your age, sex, race, nationality, culture, family of origin, sexual orientation, or financial situation, stress is a part of your life. That said, not all stress is bad. The old saying, “the mind works best when moderately stressed,” contains a dose of wisdom.

In fact, without stress, very little gets done, and life soon becomes dull. Projects, tasks, and events are all enhanced with a modest amount of deadline stress. However, once stress creeps over a certain threshold (and that line is different for everyone), it has a negative affect on us physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Ideally, we would all like to keep our stress level below the upper limits of our comfort zone — where a certain sense of urgency helps us tackle the tasks at hand, without pushing us into feeling overwhelmed and unable to keep up.

I look at stress like a good cup of coffee. The first cup lifts you up and energizes your system. You feel stronger, smarter, and “ready to go.” The second cup turbo charges the effects of the first. The third cup feels like you’ve ingested rocket fuel. By the fourth cup, the caffeine is beginning to overload your circuits and you feel jumpy and irritable. With the fifth or sixth cup, the lift you felt with the first cup now feels like a roller coaster, and any boost in productivity has long since crashed and burned. (Admittedly, this analogy isn’t perfect. We all know people who can drink coffee like it was water and not miss a beat, but hopefully you get the idea.)

Perhaps Walt Disney best captured this frantic feeling of being out of control in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment of his 1940 classic film, Fantasia, in which, Mickey Mouse plays a Sorcerer’s Apprentice who casts a spell on a broomstick to help him carry water — only he doesn’t remember how to undo the spell. (If you’ve never seen this section of Fantasia, or if it’s been a while, I highly recommend clicking on the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” above. It’s only takes 10 minutes and will put a smile on your face, which will lower your stress level.)

What is Stress, Anyway?

The Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines the word “Stress” with regard to health as: “A physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.”

Although this definition covers the basics, in real life, stress is harder to define; although, virtually everyone knows what it’s like to feel “stressed out.”

Stress is also subjective. Events that cause you stress may not do the same for others — and vice versa. Some people have amazing talents for accounting, building skyscrapers, wedding planning, writing computer software, designing clothing, medical research, or managing diverse groups of people. If most of us tried to jump into their shoes, very quickly, we would feel overwhelmed to the point of being incapacitated.

Regardless of where your genius lies, there are certain situations that cause stress in all of us. In the late 1960s, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe devised (and then rigorously tested) a stress scale that ranked stressful events as a predictor of future illness. The Holmes and Rahe Scale is cumulative and ranks 43 life events according to their negative health effects. This evaluation adds up the points associated with all the stressful events that have happened to someone in the last year, and then compares that number to known ranges of points.

Below are Holmes and Rahe’s top 10 events. For the full list and cumulative scores, please click here. If you go to the link, it is interesting to compare Holmes and Rahe’s scale for adults with their scale for children.

 The Holmes and Rahe Scale (for adults)

Stressful Events                                         Life Change Units

  1. Death of a spouse                                                 100
  2. Divorce                                                                   73
  3. Marital separation                                                  65
  4. Imprisonment                                                         63
  5. Death of a close family member                            63
  6. Personal injury or illness                                        53
  7. Marriage                                                                 50
  8. Dismissal from work                                              47
  9. Marital reconciliation                                             45
  10. Retirement                                                              45

 

The common denominator in these stressful situations is the feeling of being out of control. Conversely, feeling in control diminishes stress. Since none of us are completely in control of our environment or our lives, stress is inevitable.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, stress is NOT inherently bad. When stressful events occur, the challenge for most people is striking a balance between feeling our feelings and keeping our heads above water. Stress only becomes a problem when:

  • Your response to it becomes negative.
  • Your feelings and emotions are inappropriate for the circumstances.
  • Your response lasts an excessively long time.
  • You are feeling continuously overwhelmed, overpowered, or overworked.

Although stress is ubiquitous, everyone has a different life, different sources of stress, and different stress thresholds. College students experience certain types and patterns of stress that CEOs do not. Stay-at-home moms have a diverse set of responsibilities that are distinct from those of a small business owner. Yet, work-related stress affects all these groups in similar ways.

Where Does Stress Come From?

According to the St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company, “Problems at work are more strongly associated with health complaints than are any other life stressor — more so than even financial problems or family problems.”

The American Institute of Stress Web site states that the overwhelming source of stress for Americans is work: 46 percent of stress is directly related to work (with an additional 6 percent attributed to job security). The other half of the stress pie chart is divided between 20 percent for juggling work and personal life (which is half about work) and personal issues (28 percent). So in reality, more than 60 percent of the stress that Americans feel is work related.

A report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded:

  • 75 percent of workers believe that workers have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago.
  • 40 percent of workers reported their jobs were very or extremely stressful.
  • 26 percent of workers said that they were “often very burned out or stressed by their work.”
  • 25 percent view their jobs as the number one stressor.

The worst statistic about workplace stress is that 20 American workers are murdered on the job every week — or 1,040 workers per year. This is insane! Can you imagine going to work wondering, “Is today the day that so-and-so is going to go postal?” Even the term “going postal” comes from postal service employees coming to work and shooting their supervisors and colleagues.

According to a 2008 survey by the American Psychological Association (Note that this survey was taken at the depth of “The Great Recession”):

  • 50 percent of Americans are increasingly stressed about their ability to provide for their family’s basic needs.
  • 80 percent of Americans stated that the economy is a significant cause of stress.
  • 83 percent of women and 78 percent of men are stressed about money

Although the economy has recovered somewhat, unemployment is still high and wages continue to remain stagnant for all but the top 10 percent of earners. For example, American men aged 25-54 earn less today than they did in 2000 when wages are adjusted for inflation. These trends are magnified for minorities. Unfortunately, stress does not exist in a vacuum. In fact, it affects virtually every aspect of our lives.

Stress and Health

According to Dr. Bruce Lipton, the author of The Biology of Belief, The Honeymoon Effect, and Spontaneous Evolution, 85 percent of all diseases appear to have an emotional element, and the actual percentage is likely to be even higher.

Living in a constant state of stress and anxiety produces a big threat to your health. Constant stress yields consistently high levels of cortisol and insulin, which makes it hard to both lose weight (burn fat) and gain muscle mass. If your cortisol is chronically elevated, you’ll tend to gain weight around your midsection, which is a major contributing factor to developing heart disease, certain types of cancer, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.

In fact, the list of diseases and chronic conditions that are negatively affected by stress reads like who’s who of major medical problems: heart disease, cancer, gastrointestinal issues, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, depression and anxiety, sleep disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, PTSD, obesity, asthma, allergies, a host of skin issues, fibromyalgia, headaches, accelerated aging, even premature death. It would take a book (or three) to discuss in detail the connection between stress and these conditions. Instead, I would like to touch on just two conditions: heart disease and cancer.

Stress and Heart Disease

In a recent study of stressed individuals, those who said that their health was “extremely” affected by stress had more than twice the risk of having a heart attack or dying from one, compared to those who believed stress had no impact on their health.

A study of Stress Cardiomyopathy (so called, “broken-heart syndrome”) documented that the stress of losing a loved one dramatically raises your risk of having a heart attack. The day after the death of a loved one, the risk of having heart attack jumps 21 times, and the risk remains six times higher for the next week. As the level of stress hormones returns to normal, the risk begins to decline, which takes about a month.

The abrupt increase in the risk of cardiovascular events like a heart attack is related to the flood of stress hormones your body is exposed to following extreme events.

For instance, the stress hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine increases your blood pressure and heart rate, and they may lead to narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to your heart, or even bind directly to heart cells allowing large amounts of calcium to enter the cells, which temporarily renders the cells unable to function properly.

Stress and Cancer

These same two stress hormones also increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer. As with heart attacks, research at The National Cancer Institute suggests that the body’s release of adrenaline and norepinephrine can inhibit both the repair process in DNA and the regulation of cell growth. Norepinephrine may increase tumor growth rates and cause changes in prostate and breast cancer cells that make them resistant to normal cell death (apoptosis). Adrenaline also alters the growth of prostate and breast cancer cells.

In other words, the less stress you feel, the less adrenaline and norepinephrine is circulating in your blood, and the lower your chances are of developing cancer or having a heart attack. I cannot think of two better reasons for lowering your stress level.

Six Tips for Stress Reduction

  1. Exercise every day for at least 40 minutes. Get your heart pumping, your lungs demanding oxygen, and body sweating. Exercise helps balance your stress hormones and takes you out of the cycle of fight or flight. The type of exercise is less important than doing it every day.
  2. Develop a daily meditation, prayer, or other mindfulness practice. The health benefits of meditation are enormous, especially in terms of lowering your stress level.
  3. Wherever possible, resolve old conflicts. Emotional baggage and simmering resentments suck the joy out of life. Cleaning up old “stuff” with the people you care about can feel like losing 25 pounds.
  4. Get 6-8 hours of quality sleep every 24 hours. This doesn’t all have to be in one stretch. Sometimes naps are the best way to repay your sleep deficit. Whatever works best for you. If you are having trouble sleeping, Dr. Mercola’s Web site has some excellent sleep suggestions.
  5. Have Fun. Even if you have four children and two jobs, there are still moments in the day that are calling you to come and play. Maybe it is a good laugh with your family or co-workers, or playing with your kids, or dancing to some great music, or singing in your car, or taking 15 minutes out of your day to practice something you love doing — a musical instrument, yoga, soccer, magic tricks — it really doesn’t matter what you do as long as it brings you joy.
  6. Eat healthy foods. A diet of leafy green vegetables, healthy fats, and lean protein keeps your hormones from rising and falling from eating too many empty carbohydrates and processed foods. When hormones like insulin, cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine fluctuate with stress and blood sugar, it is difficult to remain healthy or calm.

Bottom line, life is too short to let unwanted stress ruin your health. The next time things get stressful in your life, remember some of these tips and see if you can make a shift.