“It is known that certain disorders such as depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disorders or reduced immune competence can be closely related to stress.”
This constitutes a risk factor for both our physical health and our mental health. It can alter or affect health through various forms and mechanisms (precipitating the occurrence of a disorder, affecting the course of a disease, generating new sources of stress, producing physical and mental discomfort, reducing our well-being and quality of life, etc. )
From this it follows that stress constitutes a dangerous vicious circle, because it generates a whole series of consequences that are also sources of stress. Next we will see the connection that exists between stress and the so-called lifestyle diseases.
In Western civilization the main causes of death are due to chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases (myocardial infarction, hypertension, etc.) and cancer. Other alterations of health, such as mental disorders (depression, hypochondria, problems of somatization, etc.), are associated with marked health disturbances, loss of quality of life and work problems.
For many of these types of disorders, the concept of lifestyle diseases has been suggested. There are numerous factors of irrigation characteristic of the lifestyle of our society that are important sources of stress, such as unemployment and precarious work, unhealthy eating habits, toxic habits such as smoking, etc.
These factors are sometimes cause or consequence, sometimes both. The result is a continuous level of overactivation that ends up directly affecting our health (continuous increase in heart rate) or indirectly (promoting unhealthy behaviors, such as binge eating).
Before the invention of penicillin, in the first half of the 20th century, our greatest invisible enemy was bacteria. Today, with the advances of medicine and the mass use of vaccines, the main threat is stress, because in advanced societies it causes more deaths and suffering than viruses and bacteria. So much so that the WHO, in October 1990, estimated that these lifestyle diseases were the cause of 70-80% of premature deaths in industrialized countries.
Depression, anxiety, essential hypertension, strokes, tumors, traffic accidents, allergies, myocardial infarctions, psychosomatic complaints and many other health problems could, to some extent, be considered as diseases or Lifestyle disorders due to their association with psychosocial stress. Let us take seriously the words of the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti:
“Being perfectly adapted to a deeply sick society is not a sign of good health.”
How does stress affect us
A stressful event always involves a change or the expectation of a change, in this sense it constitutes a threat to homeostasis (natural balance of the organism), which is why it puts us on alert. The stressful potential of a vital event is a function of the amount of change it entails: the greater the change, the greater the likelihood of becoming ill.
The overload that stress involves for the body does not act in a specific way, predisposing us for a particular disease, rather it leaves us in a state of helplessness, diminishing the general capacity of our body to regenerate, defend and recover, making us more vulnerable.
The minor events, the “small setbacks” such as the typical road jam at rush hour, form the great bulk of small, stressful day-to-day events. Having the force of habit, these daily discomforts become part of our routine, we incorporate them as something habitual, normalizing them, and we respond less to these small complications than to the major changes in life.
It is thought that this type of daily stress, due to its cumulative impact, could be a greater source of stress than major life changes and would be a better predictor of the alteration of health, particularly of chronic disorders.
Psychological and somatic symptomatology
The accumulated experience of setbacks seems to predict the level of psychic (basically emotional) and somatic symptomatology (somatic complaints in general).
Many authors have found relationships between daily stress and levels of anxiety and depression, somatic and general psychological complaints, symptom level in different somatophysiological systems (cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, neurological-sensory, musculoskeletal, etc.), psychological well-being and psychological symptoms of different domains.
There is also a relationship, although less clear, between daily stress and the appearance of psychopathological disorders (anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, etc.), something that, however, does seem to be linked to the previous occurrence of life events (major events).
Perhaps the most important relationship of daily stress and these disorders would occur by affecting the course of the disorder, aggravating its symptoms, rather than acting as a precipitating factor.
Daily stress and alterations of physical health
The nervous and hormonal alterations that stress generates have repercussions of various types on our state of health. Below you can see which are the main ones.
1. Gastrointestinal disorders
There are several works that relate daily stress to the course of some chronic medical illnesses. Gastrointestinal disorders have received some attention, such as Chron’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome.
With regard to irritable bowel syndrome, several authors have indicated the advisability of implementing cognitive-behavioral coping programs aimed at the treatment of these patients and even more so if one takes into account that medical treatments are only palliative.
2. Rheumatoid arthritis
Some research has linked the stress of life events with the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, although it seems that stress, especially daily stress, plays a role in aggravating the symptoms. There is some controversy as to whether it acts mediating immunological changes associated with stress or if it does so by increasing sensitivity to the pain response.
Already in 1916 the statesman Frederick. L. Hoffman pointed to the low prevalence of cancer among primitive peoples, suggesting a close relationship between the development of this disease and the lifestyle of modern societies.
In 1931 the missionary doctor Albert Schweizer observed this same phenomenon, as did the anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson in 1960. The latter explains in his book Cancer: Disease of civilization, how to reach the Arctic observed the absence of cancer among the Eskimos and how is it The disease increased its prevalence as the primitive peoples of the Arctic came into contact with the white man.
More recently, it has been seen that the weakening of the immune system that causes stress is related to a greater presence of cancer.
Several authors have reported a close relationship between the setbacks and the symptoms of migraine. An increase in daily stressors would produce greater headaches, associating both the frequency and the intensity of the pain.
5. Coronary artery disease
Daily stress can aggravate the symptoms of angina in patients with coronary artery disease. On the other hand, the increase in stress could predict the angina of the following week,
6. Cardiovascular responses
There is a relationship between stress and hypertension and / or coronary artery disease and they play an important role in increasing blood pressure.
7. Infectious diseases
Several authors point to daily stress as a factor that increases vulnerability to infectious diseases such as upper respiratory tract infections, influenza or herpes virus infections.
8. Immune system
The literature that links the implication of stress in relation to the functioning of the immune system is very abundant. This effect could be observed in diseases mediated by the immune system, such as infectious diseases, cancer or autoimmune diseases.
This influence of stress on the immune system has been observed both in acute stressors (one exam), as chronic stressors (unemployment, conflicts with the couple) or life events (loss of the husband).
There is not so much literature regarding the influence of daily stress, although it has been observed that positive events in our life are related to an increase in an antibody, immunoglobulin A, while negative events tend to reduce the presence of this antibody.
The consequences of stress are multiple, affecting several levels (physical and psychological) manifesting in a very diverse way both in form and in severity. Much of this stress overload is linked to our particular lifestyle and it is in our power to make changes to reduce this harmful influence on health.
Finally, it should be noted that beyond the influence of external factors that generate stress, there are variables in the person that modulate the greater or lesser adequacy of the response to the demands of the environment. There are variables in the personality such as neuroticism (tendency to worry) that make us especially vulnerable to stress or personal factors such as the resilience that hardens us against it.
Remember that if you feel overwhelmed by the circumstances you can always go to a psychology professional who teaches you appropriate strategies to cope better with the difficulties of the day to day.