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Apr 25, 2011

Stress: How it Affects Us (Part 1)

“Stress” is a term many of us are all too familiar with, particularly now with high rates of unemployment, difficult times in our economy, and some of the tragic events that have recently occurred in our world.  The fact is we are all living in uncertain times, and this alone can feel a little overwhelming.  Add this to relationship or situational difficulties with loved ones or employers/employees/colleagues, current troubles with health, and a vast array of other challenges that naturally come with being alive, and it becomes completely understandable why you might describe yourself as feeling just a little stressed out.  Or maybe you feel that your entire life has been overtaken by STRESS!  

Research continues to confirm how excessive stress plays a major role in most illnesses, from headaches to heart disease, sleep problems to hormonal imbalances, and immune deficiencies to digestive troubles.  It has been estimated that 75-90% of doctor visits are related to stress in some way.  Regardless of your current level of stress, everyone has some degree of it and will greatly benefit by learning how to reduce or manage it. 

Stress is the body's reaction to a change that requires a physical, mental or emotional adaptation or response.  A small level of stress is actually healthy, as it not only helps us to learn and grow as human beings, but it can be our saving grace in the occasional life-threatening situation.  When stress becomes chronic and excessive, however, the endocrine system (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal glands) goes on overdrive.  Stress hormones like cortisol are often produced in excess for a time, and then may eventually become depleted.  With these abnormal levels of stress hormones circulating throughout the body, circadian rhythms (sleep cycles) get thrown off, blood pressure and heart rates are changed for the worst, blood sugar can become problematic, and immune system function declines.   These are some of the detrimental physiological changes that form the foundation for chronic disease.

The most important approach when dealing with chronic stress is to look for ways to change or improve the situation if possible.  This can even include changing one’s outlook on the situation, since our interpretation of events is just as important as the events themselves.  When a stressful situation cannot be changed or avoided, much can be done to support the body as it undergoes during periods of high stress.  This material will be covered in the upcoming article, "Stress:  How to Deal (Part 2)”.  

Dr. Shana McQueen