Stress Management: Medical Risks of Stress

What is Stress?

Stress may be defined as the three-way relationship between demands on people, our feelings about those demands and our ability to cope with them. Stress is most likely to occur in situations where:

1. Demands are high.
2. The amount of control we have is low.
3. There is limited support or help available for us.

Who is Affected Most by Stress?

Virtually all people experience stressful events or situations that overwhelm our natural coping mechanisms. And although some people are biologically prone to stress, many outside factors influence susceptibility as well.

Studies indicate that some people are more vulnerable to the effects of stress than others. Older adults; women in general, especially working mothers and pregnant women; less-educated people; divorced or widowed people; people experiencing financial strains such as long-term unemployment; people who are the targets of discrimination; uninsured and underinsured people; and people who simply live in cities all seem to be particularly susceptible to health-related stress problems.

People who are less emotionally stable or have high anxiety levels tend to experience certain events as more stressful than healthy people do. And the lack of an established network of family and friends predisposes us to stress-related health problems such as heart disease and infections. Caregivers, children and medical professionals are also frequently found to be at higher risk for stress-related disorders.

Job-related stress is particularly likely to be chronic because it is such a large part of life. Stress reduces a worker's effectiveness by impairing concentration, causing sleeplessness and increasing the risk of illness, back problems, accidents and lost time. At its worst extremes, stress that places a burden on our hearts and circulation can often be fatal. The Japanese have a word for sudden death due to overwork: karoushi.

Medical Affects of Chronic Stress

The stress response of the body is like an airplane readying for take-off. Virtually all systems, such as the heart and blood vessels, the immune system, the lungs, the digestive system, the sensory organs, and the brain are modified to meet the perceived danger.

A stress-filled life really seems to raise the odds of heart disease and stroke down the road. Researchers have found that after middle-age, those who report chronic stress face a somewhat higher risk of fatal or non-fatal heart disease or stroke over the years. It is now believed that constant stress takes its toll on our arteries, causing chronically high levels of stress hormones and pushing people to maintain unhealthy habits like smoking.

Stressed-out men are twice as likely as their peers to die of a stroke. There are weaker such findings among women, which is likely due to the fairly low number of heart disease and stroke cases among women, rather than a resistance to the health effects of chronic stress. Women seem slightly more susceptible to the effects of stress than men.

Simply put, too much stress puts you at dire risk for health problems. Whether it comes from one event or the buildup of many small events, stress causes major physical alterations that often lead to health problems. Here is a list of some of these changes:

? Our heart rates increase, to move blood to our muscles and brains.
? Our blood pressures go up.
? Our breathing rates increase.
? Our digestion slows down.
? Our perspiration increases.
? We feel a rush of strength at first, but over time stress makes us feel weak.

These reactions helped our ancestors survive threats by preparing for either "fight or flight." Today, our bodies still react the same way, but the events that cause stress do not require this ancient mechanism.

Stress can also greatly raise our risk of:

? Ulcers and digestive disorders
? Headaches
? Migraine headaches
? Backaches
? Depression
? Suicide
? High blood pressure
? Stroke
? Heart attack
? Alcohol and drug dependencies
? Allergies and skin diseases
? Cancer
? Asthma
? Depressed immune system
? More colds and infections

We have to learn ways to relieve stress, because when it goes on for very long or happens too often, it obviously can cause many serious health problems.

Resources about Stress Risks

The information in this article is originally from: the Somerset Medical Center website, http://www.somersetmedicalcenter.com; the University of Maryland Medicine website, http://www.umm.edu/patiented; the March of Dimes website, http://www.marchofdimes.com; the voice of doctors website, http://web.bma.org.uk; and the Health Ink Online website, http://www.healthinkonline.com.

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