Stress, Depression, and Physical Health, November 15, 2011
The Health Risks of Chronic Stress

What is Stress?

We all experience stress sometimes, but chronic stress can be damaging to the mind and body. So what is stress? If we perceive or appraise an event or circumstance as beyond our ability to cope, we tend to feel “stressed.” What is stressful for one person is not necessarily so for another, since how we react to events depends on our history of previous experiences and our coping abilities.

The Effects of Stress

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system are the primary pathways of the body’s stress system. When we become stressed, our body reacts by setting in motion a complex physiological response, in which nerve signals are sent to various organs in the body, and hormones are released into the bloodstream preparing us for “fight or flight.” Our body’s stress response is intended as an adaptive survival mechanism. It prepares our body for action, when in danger, through the release of stress hormones that increase blood pressure, heart rate and sugar levels in the blood. But if we have nothing concrete to flee from or to battle, such as say worries about our work or our relationship problems, then over time chronic stress can result in health problems.

Cortisol is the principal stress hormone. Excessive cortisol production over a prolonged period of time can weaken the immune system and adversely affect memory. If a person is already stressed, too much caffeine or alcohol consumption can heighten the negative effects of the stress response by increasing cortisol secretion.

Stress can generate muscle tension in the body, and give rise to tension headaches. Stress can adversely affect a person’s mood, with resulting symptoms of irritability, lack of energy, concentration difficulties, short temper, anxiety or depression. It can alter a person’s eating habits and disrupt sleep. Chronic stress is associated with asthma severity and exacerbations, as well as overall compromise of the immune system that leads to or can worsen the disease. Stress can cause psoriasis to flare up for the first time or can aggravate existing psoriasis. Stress can affect gastrointestinal motility, and give rise to problems with constipation or diarrhea. Stress may aggravate Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Stress and depression are risk factors for heart disease.

Diabetes and Depression

Chronic stress may contribute to type II diabetes. Symptoms of depression are more common in individuals with diabetes compared to the general population. Depressed individuals are inclined to manage their blood glucose more poorly and may be at risk for health complications. See the article “Diabetes and Depression” on the Canadian Diabetes Association website for more information.