Care must be taken in interpreting the signs of stress since many can be due to other factors. For instance, cold hands can be due to winter weather! A low external temperature is a physical stressor because it activates the body’s stress response, within the normal zone, so that a normal body temperature can be maintained. Unless the temperatures are extreme and potentially life-threatening, most people would not say they felt ‘stressed’ because of them. So a person might have cold hands but not feel emotionally stressed at the time. Furthermore, some diseases of the circulation can lead to poor blood flow in the hands, resulting in coldness.
Signs such as back and neck pain, headaches, muscular aches and pains, spasm and cramps, constipation, diarrhoea, indigestion and nausea can all arise for reasons other than stress. It is when we find a number of these signs occurring together that we can often attribute them to stress.
Hidden signs of stress
It is impossible for us to see blood glucose and fat levels changing, more red cells pouring into the bloodstream, blood clotting more easily or wound-healing processes being stimulated when the stress response is at work. These signs are hidden from our eyes but not from the scientist who, with an array of highly sophisticated instruments, can spot and measure the internal actions of the stress response.
Unfortunately many of the hidden signs outwardly rear their ugly heads only when it is too late. Their continued or frequent action can lead to ill health and death and only then can they be seen! The purpose of being Stresswise is to take heed of outward physical and mental signs of stress and to take preventive action before it is too late!
The stress response involves all body functions so too much distress overtaxing our adaptive resources can lead to exhaustion, a variety of health problems and can even be fatal. It has been estimated that at least 75 per cent of illness reported to GPs is stress related. Some doctors have even suggested that almost all illness and premature deaths can be associated with distress. This is not hard to believe when you consider that stress affects all our body systems including our defence and immune mechanisms. We are also more prone to accidents when we are distressed.
Industry and commerce have seen how distress can affect productivity and profits. Surveys and studies have estimated that 100 million working days are lost each year due to distress-related illness and absenteeism, costing the country around £3 billion per annum. Companies pay the price of distress by loss of personnel through resignation or premature retirement. Apart from the personal effects of distress-related ill health, there are also the demands it places on the family. Disability, medical treatment and sick leave from work pose varied and incalculable demands on the family’s and nation’s caring resources.
Many researchers and doctors now believe that excessive, frequent and/or prolonged action of the stress response, particularly without the normal outlet for the accompanying physical activity, can lead to a variety of disorders and diseases. This is most clearly seen in the cardiovascular system which is heavily involved in the alarm reaction. The digestive system is also very vulnerable. Recent research has shown how cortisol can adversely affect the immune system. Chronic stimulation of this system by cortisol reduces the body’s ability to deal with infection and increases susceptibility to diseases such as cancer.
The effects mentioned so far are physical but the emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression, are perhaps the more obvious consequences of distress. Furthermore our behaviour and lifestyle frequently change when we are distressed. Altered eating, smoking and drinking patterns and drug abuse bring their own problems and add to the health risks normally associated with these behaviours. Some distress-related disorders and diseases are shown in the table opposite. These range from symptoms that are simply unpleasant and uncomfortable to more serious illnesses that can be disabling, life-threatening and fatal.
We know Homo sapiens has existed for around 40,000 years in essentially the same biological form as we are today. The urbanized, industrialized, high technology era is a very recent phenomenon in this evolutionary period but has presented the greatest amount of environmental change in a relatively short time. We still have the same biological mechanism – the stress response – to deal with a very different environment. No wonder we suffer the consequences of an outdated biological system which is largely inappropriate for today’s demands and pressures.
Today we are bombarded with a continuous stream of emotional threats and challenges and if our beliefs lead us regularly to perceive these as stressors, real or imaginary, then we face the consequences of ill health and death as a result of over-using our stress response.