Diane Strassy dealt with stressful situations every day. From handling the logistics of taking her disabled husband to different doctors for heart problems, leukemia, and diabetes, to managing his intake of numerous medicines, and dealing with multiple trips to the hospital due to his health issues, all of which left her suffering from an elevated stress level.
To make matters worse, her stress level was taken to a new high when the family home burned to the ground and they lost everything they owned. Due to high medical bills and low income, insurance was not taken out on the home or contents. Unfortunately, that meant the loss was not only a total physical loss of a home and personal belongings, but they were left without any means for financial recovery.
Within a short few months, Diane started to suffer from severe and debilitating panic attacks, continuous anxiety, incessant crying, flashbacks, and nightmares on a daily and even hourly occurrence. Unable to sleep except for short periods lasting two to four hours in a 24-hour period, she was reduced to a highly depressed individual who became unable to handle normal activities such as cooking food, house cleaning, and even personal hygiene. She also gained over fifty pounds that could not be accounted for merely by diet choices. A year later, she was diagnosed with a condition known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, along with hypertension – caused by an overload of stress, anxiety, depression, and from witnessing a horrific event.
What is stress? Stress is a physical, mental, and/or emotional reaction the body generates after the introduction of certain events called stressors. Often, stress encompasses a combined reaction of all three as the body reacts or adjusts to the stressor. If the stress is reoccurring or never-ending, it becomes known as chronic stress. It has been found that social and psychological stress is also determined by a person’s place in the social hierarchy and the social status in the community.
Stress and the accompanying anxiety include symptoms of a physiological response called the “fight or flight response which involves biochemical changes that begin with any apparent threat to personal or situational safety. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) turns on the fight or flight response and a series of events begin.
The adrenal glands begin to produce stress hormones that cause muscles to tense, pupils to dilate, and other senses such as hearing and smell to become more heightened. Breathing and heart rates speed up and perspiration increases. Increased adrenaline and enhanced blood flow to the larger muscles enable and enhance the ability to stand and face the danger or to flee from it. (In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) normally brings the body back to normal.)
What effect does stress have on the human body? Unfortunately, too much stress, with the anxiety associated with it, can cause detrimental effects to the immune system and other bodily functions. Aggressive behavior may increase, tempers may become short, irritability increases, mood swings become common, and panic attacks are frequent and often physically painful.
Moreover, if stress is present over an extended period of time other physical changes may include hair loss, severe headaches, high blood pressure, sexual dysfunction, obesity, premature aging, ulcers, and a suppressed immune system. Depression, anxiety disorders, along with an inability to concentrate or even to remember names or other facts can also be attributed to stress.
When stress levels increase, it can shut down the autoimmune system, thus making it harder for the body to heal itself. Stress lowers life expectancy and increases the rate of physical and mental body aging. Studies have found that the location and distribution of additional weight gain appears to be specifically targeted. This may answer one reason for the global obesity that exists worldwide, especially in the United States.
Stress hormones creates a situation where arterial plaque builds up quickly, damaging artery walls and increasing damage to the arteries, veins, and the heart muscle itself. Strokes and heart attacks are often direct results of high stress levels.
Chief among these reactions is an increased bio-chemical production of cortisol. Cortisol keeps blood pressure and breathing elevated in order to react quickly to the stressor. Cortisol is beneficial when it occurs for short periods of time, however, if the stressor continues to impact the body, the results can be devastating.
However, and even more surprisingly, studies now show chronic stress causes brain cells to become smaller and less active especially in the hippocampus, affecting memory and learning, effectively lowering a person’s overall intelligence. The capacity to remember things or events that typically is something well known and remembered and the inability to concentrate on any given task. Yes, stress kills brain cells. Therefore, when Diane complained about feeling dumber than she used to, there may be a great deal of truth as to why.
High stress also affects the development and growth of not only cells at the molecular level, but also at the genetic level affecting even the body’s DNA and chromosomes. Stress hormones affect fetus growth and development and studies have shown that children conceived and carried in the womb during a time of heavy stress on the mother are often at higher risk of developing depression and becoming victims of strokes and heart attacks.
Not all stress is bad for humans. Some activities such as riding roller coasters, skydiving, taking a test, or even learning to drive a car can be good stress called eustress. Stress creates a chemical called dopamine, which binds with dopamine receptors in the brain. If it’s “good stress” it creates a sense of well-being, heightens pleasure in doing things that may present an illusion of danger, and provides a pleasurable response to activities versus being viewed as a catastrophic event.
In Diane’s case, a regime of medications to combat the severity of her panic attacks and anxiety along with therapy and exercise have lessened some of the stress. Other medications help with the high blood pressure and hypertension. We have to be careful because drugs should not be the only or primary answer to alleviating the problem.
As events unfold in our personal lives and in the global view world-wide regarding economics, politics, and changes in our lifestyle, stress is going to escalate. More people are going to begin to suffer from anxiety, depression, weight gain, heart attacks, strokes and death of brain cells that have never been a victim before today. It is going to become extremely important to devise new ways of using old and current methods to reduce stress. Even so, the effects of high levels of stress and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may never go away.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), National Institute of Mental Health
Stressful event kills brain cells, March 14, 2007
Does Stress Really Kill Brain Cells?, by Quantum Publisher, June 3, 2009
Coping With Stress, Bucknell University