Anxiety over a project at work… a marital spat… financial trouble… health problems… the list of potential stressors is endless, but wherever your stress is coming from, it likely starts in your head.
An inkling of worry might soon grow into an avalanche of anxiety. It might keep you up at night, your mind racing with potential "what ifs" and worst-case scenarios. Worse still, if the problem is ongoing, your stressed-out state may become your new normal -- extra stress hormones, inflammation, and all.
While beneficial if you are in imminent danger, that heightened state of stress – the one that makes your survival more likely in the event of an attack, for instance – is damaging over time.
The thoughts in your head are only the beginning or, perhaps more aptly, are the wheels that set the harmful mechanism known as chronic stress into motion – and, once spinning, it's very easy to spiral out of control.
As reported in Science News: "Stress research gained traction with a master stroke of health science called the Whitehall Study, in which British researchers showed that stressed workers were suffering ill effects. Scientists have since described how a stressed brain triggers rampant hormone release, which leads to imbalanced immunity and long-term physical wear and tear.
Those effects take a toll quite apart from the anxiety and other psychological challenges that stressed individuals deal with day to day."
Stress: It's Not Just in Your Head
You know the saying "when it rains, it pours"? This is a good description of chronic stress in your body, because it makes virtually everything harder. The term psychological stress is, in fact, misleading, because no stress is solely psychological… it's not all in your head. Let's say you lose your job or are struggling from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from abuse you suffered as a child.
Excess stress hormones are released, including cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Your stress response becomes imbalanced; it's not shutting off.
Your immune system suffers as a result, and epigenetic changes are rapidly occurring. The stress is triggering systemic low-grade inflammation, and suddenly your blood pressure is up, your asthma is flaring, and you keep getting colds. That cut on your leg just doesn't seem to want to heal, and your skin is a mess. You're having trouble sleeping and, on an emotional level, you feel like you're nearing burnout. Stress is very much like a snowball rolling down a mountain, gaining momentum, gaining speed and growing until suddenly it crashes. That crash, unfortunately, is often at the expense of your health.
More heart attacks and other cardiovascular events also occur on Mondays than any other day of the week. This "Monday cardiac phenomenon" has been recognised for some time, and has long been believed to be related to work stress. During moments of high stress, your body releases hormones such as norepinephrine, which the researchers believe can cause the dispersal of bacterial biofilms from the walls of your arteries. This dispersal can allow plaque deposits to suddenly break loose, thereby triggering a heart attack.
Stress contributes to heart disease in other ways as well. Besides norepinephrine, your body also releases other stress hormones that prepare your body to either fight or flee. One such stress hormone is cortisol.
When stress becomes chronic, your immune system becomes increasingly desensitised to cortisol, and since inflammation is partly regulated by this hormone, this decreased sensitivity heightens the inflammatory response and allows inflammation to get out of control. Chronic inflammation is a hallmark not only of heart disease but many chronic diseases.
Learning how to recognise stress, understanding the effects that it has on the body and knowing how to keep your body in balance so to minimise risk, is an important part of health and wellness.