Stress. For me, that word conjures images of 6th grade dances and 11th grade finals to the forefront of my mind. And while stress manifests itself in various shapes and forms, this emotional stress is one to which most people can relate. Sleeping through your alarm, getting pulled over, missing the bus, getting caught canoodling with a stranger in your friend’s basement–all of these (likely) would induce an emotional stress response in an individual; that being said, those same individuals never really stop and think of how that same stress impacts them physiologically, especially during the winter cold and flu season when their bodies and immune systems are already somewhat compromised.
There has been numerous experimental works that have uncovered a direct relationship between stress and illness. In one study, 394 healthy subjects filled out detailed questionnaires that indicated the degree of psychological stress they were undergoing at the time. Then, each of the five individuals were exposed via nasal drops to one of five different respiratory viruses in a deliberate attempt to induce a viral infection. The results showed a direct correlation between the amount of stress experienced and whether or not the individual actually came down with a cold. It was also discovered (and important to note) that these effects were independent of age, sex, education, weight, the season of the year, propensity for allergies, social support, and a variety of health habits, such as diet, exercise, alcohol consumption, smoking, and sleep. Additionally, they was independent of a variety of personality variables, including self-esteem, tendencies toward extraversion, and personal control. Because none of these additional factors that often moderate the stress and illness relationship were statistically significant, a direct relationship was confirmed between stress and illness.
Another interesting study supports the hypothesis that preexisting psychological or physical vulnerabilities can play an important role in the relationship between stress and illness, suggesting that stress is especially likely to lead to illness among those who have an initial vulnerability. Hamsters suffering from inherited heart disease were studied. It soon became evident that when stress was experienced by the hamsters during the initial stages of the disease, heart failure did not develop; however, once cardiac changes had developed in the hamsters, the stress actually induced heart failure. Moreover, and perhaps the most interesting takeaway, is that the pattern of results suggest that the stress was not merely an additional burden for the animal, but that the pathogenic effects of stress were multiplied by the existence of the prior illness. In humans, this is seen a lot in diseases such as hypertension; that is, chronic stress has much less of an effect on those with normal blood pressure ranges than on those with elevated ones, and the multiplied effects of the stress cause hypertension.
A similar phenomenon is observed with stressors such as crowding and noise. While crowding and noise generally don’t produce harmful effects for most people, these stressors tend to have greater negative effects among vulnerable populations such as the elderly, children, and the poor.
Another way that stress can indirectly induce illness is by altering a person’s behavior patterns. One study found that participants reported getting less sleep, being less likely to eat, consuming more alcohol, and using drugs more frequently when undergoing more stress than was typical for them. To the extent that health habits are altered by stress, illness may indeed be a consequence.
Stress, then, may in fact have a direct effect on illness, may interact meaningfully with pre-existing vulnerabilities, and may adversely impact health habits. That being said, there will still be a large amount of individual variability in whether stress will actually cause illness since stress moderators enable people to cope with stress differently. It is for this reason that I have decided to redirect the focus of this site primarily through a stress lense. Reducing stress and improving the physiological moderators and defenses against stress through sleep, nutrition, and other means will improve one’s overall health and wellness in a powerful way.
Health should be founded in function, not in how much you weigh or how many vegetables you eat. Having a body that’s resistant and not preexistingly vulnerable to stress and illness is a body that fosters exceptional mood stability, sleep, energy, mental clarity, digestion, excretion, libido, skin quality, and body warmth, among other things. Those qualities should be at the top of the list when discussing health and wellness, not BMI, body fat percentage, water intake, or other socially propagated minutiae. I know the idea of having washboard abs or super toned arms is cool, but not when you can’t sleep, are freezing cold, hungry, tired, irritable, socially isolated because you only consume salads and protein shakes. And here’s the kicker: when you’re in that metabolic state, those abs aren’t gonna be showing for long anyway.
This year, I hope everyone decides to focus on function over fads. Happy 2014. Be happy :)
- Cohen, S. Tyrell, D. A. J., & Smith, A.P. (1991). Psychological stress and susceptibility to the common cold. New England Journal of Medicine, 325, 606-612.
- Cohen, S., & Williamson, G. M. (1988). Perceived stress in a probability sample of the United States. In S. Spacapan & S. Oskamp (Eds.), The social psychology of health (pp.31-67). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Tapp, W. N., & Natelson, B. H. (1988). Consequences of stress: A multiplicative function of health status. FASEB J, 2, 2268-2271.
- Conway, T. L., Vickers, R. R., Ward, H. W., & Rahe, R. H. (1981). Occupational stress and variation in cigarette, coffee, and alcohol consumption. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 22, 155-165.