Can stress trigger diseases?
Stress is defined as the non-specific response of the body to any demands made upon it. Everyday, in every walk of life, we come across stress. As much as people wish for a stress free life, such a task would be impossible to achieve. Stress is a part and parcel of our lives. Unfortunately, stress does not only produce discomfort, if ignored, it can lead to serious chronic illnesses. So what really happens when a person experiences chronic stress?
Our body goes through varies changes in its attempt to cope with stress. Let us examine the bodily processes. When we experiences stress in some part of the body, that part of the body sends a message to the brain via the nerves. Then it passes through the reticular activating system either from or to the limbic system or the thalamus. The limbic system is like the store house of our emotions, to which the thalamus acts like a trigger or a switch, determining what to do with the incoming signals sent by the body. Thus, activating the hypothalamus, this in turn will activate the endocrine system and the autonomic nervous system.
Another way in which the brains will response to a stressor is by activating a part of the brain known as hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system (HPA system). The HPA will activate the production and release of glucocorticolds i.e. steroid hormones, including the primary stress hormone crotisol. This hormone is very important in marshaling systems through out the body to deal quickly with the stress. When the body works to cope with stress, it produces some byproducts. If these byproducts of stress are not dealt with in a productive way, they result in all out physiological reactions or illness and diseases.
Lets us consider some illnesses and diseases. There are many diseases to which the mind makes the body susceptible. These diseases are known as psychosomatic diseases (psyche means mind; soma means body). Let us make this concept clear by an example; Jenny is a 45 year old woman. Her husband passed away, leaving her depressed. Jenny’s husband was a kind person and jenny felt it was not fair, and found it hard to cope with her husband’s untimely death. A sense of helplessness came over her. Loneliness were her only companion now, there were people who where not surprised at jenny’s death just one year after her husband passed away. They officially termed it as death due to heart attack, but to jenny’s friends, it was known that jenny died of a “broken heart”.
You may know a few people like jenny yourself, people who died or fell chronically ill from sever stress with practically little physically wrong with them. How many times we tell people “it’s all in your head”. In jenny’s case, it was not all in her head. Sometimes when we experience too much emotional stress it results in physical disease, such diseases are known as psychogenic diseases. In psychogenic diseases there is no invasion of disease producing virus or micro organism, the mind changes the physiology in such a way that it breaks down. On the other hand, diseases occur when the mind makes the body vulnerable to some diseases causing microbes or natural degenerative processes, this is known as a somatogenic disease such as cancer, or asthma, etc. There can be various diseases cause by stress. Let us look at a few specific conditions. One of the common diseases caused by stress is Hypertension. Hypertension also commonly known as high blood pressure is excessive and damaging pressure of the blood against the arterial walls of the blood vessels. If the blood produces too much pressure on the arterial walls, they will rupture. And the blood that was intended to reach a special location will not reach its goal. If the rupture is in the brain it can cause cerebral hemorrhage. Since blood pressure as well as the serum cholesterol increase during stress there relation between hypertension and stress has long been suspected. Emotional stress is usually a major cause of hypertension. Hypertension can be controlled by medication, but sometimes drugs have their side effects. These side effects with poor habits like smoking and alcoholism can be harmful. To deal with hypertension, alone with medication and improvement in life style, various stress management interventions like learning how to relax, perception interventions, etc. are also essential.
Apoplexy, commonly known as stroke is the lack of oxygen to the brain resulting from rupture or blockage of one of the arteries in the brain. Depending on the site of rupture, it could have its effects like paralysis, speech impairments, or even death may occur. Strokes are related to hypertension, diet and stress. Another disease caused by stress is ulcers. Ulcers are cuts or fissures in the walls of the stomach, during chronic stress norepinphrine secretion causes capillaries in the stomach lining to constrict. This, in turn results in shutting down of the mucosal production which is the protective barrier for the lining in the stomach. When the barrier in the wall of the stomach is lost, the hydrochloric acid breaks down the tissue and sometimes even reaches the blood vessel causing a bleeding ulcer. However, it has been found that there are many other causes of ulcer. Still, stress can exacerbate the conditions in the degenerative track to make ulcers more likely to occur. It can also act as a catalyst in the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach.
Another painful disease caused by stress is Rheumatoid arthritis. It is the swelling and inflammation in various joints in the body which if continued in its development can be very painful. A normal joint has a synovial membrane. This membrane produces fluids which lubricate the joints, in Rheumatoid arthritis, this membrane secretes excessive fluids. These fluids cause a swelling around the joint. If the development continues then these fluids penetrate into the bone as excessive fluids have no where else to expand, therefore they penetrate the bone. In the last stage it may harm the scar tissue with immobilizes the bone and can result in deformity. Sometimes rheumatoid arthritis is due to hereditary factors known as rheumatoid factors. When under chronic stress, it aggravates the development of this arthritis, especially for people who are prone to it. As seen above, if not paid attention to, stress can have lot of negative consequences. Cancer, backache, TMJ syndrome, asthma, hey fever, tension headaches, migraine headaches and coronary heart diseases to name a few.
Healthy stress is necessary to give direction to every individual’s life. So don’t go where life takes you, but take life where you are heading.