Stress: Causes, Effects & Coping

Health risks of stress should not be ignored - and coping mechanisms can help

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

Everyone, at one point or another, experiences some level of stress in his or her lifetime. Studies are conducted and results are released all the time that attribute physical health problems to high stress levels.

But stress is a part of life and sometimes unavoidable.

Fortunately, there are many different, healthy coping mechanisms, but the trick is finding the right one to implement. Not everyone can just drop things and head to a beach in Mexico with a good book.

Stress management is not only important, in some cases—it’s vital for survival. The physiological effects of psychological stress are undeniable. Here are a few things to watch out for, a few reasons why and a few ways to find balance.

Proper stress management can keep the body and the mind healthy and functioning more optimally. As Benjamin Franklin said: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

Different Kinds of Stress

Not all stress is bad; some stress is detrimental while other stress can be healthy. As defined by The American Institute of Stress, there are four kinds of stress.
• Acute stress is situational and triggers the fight or flight response in the body. This kind of stress isn’t bad if it’s not experienced all the time.
• Chronic stress is daily stuff like, job, bills, family demands. This is the kind of stress that can build up over time.
• Eustress is positive stress like getting married or promoted, having a baby, or graduating from school. This is good event stress that the body is equipped to handle.
• Distress is negative stress like a divorce, legal trouble, getting hurt, money troubles or anything that causes serious worry. This kind of stress can really take its toll on the body.

Stress on the Rise

A recent study from Carnegie Mellon University polled 2,387 US residents in 1983 and then another 2,000 from 2006 and 2009 using the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). Results revealed that people from lower income brackets, women and less educated people reported more stress across the board.

The good news is that people reported less stress once they were in their retirement. But for many, that is a long way off.

According to Sheldon Cohen, PhD, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon and lead author of this study, “We know that stress contributes to poorer health practices, increased risk for disease, accelerated disease progression and increased mortality.”

The cover story of the June 6, 1983 issue of Time magazine was about stress, titled, “The Epidemic of the Eighties”.

The study results showed somewhere between a 10 and 30 percent rise in stress levels from 1983 to 2009. This concerned Cohen, “[I]t’s clear that stress is still very much present in Americans’ lives, putting them at greater risk for many diseases such as cardiovascular, asthma and autoimmune disorders.”

Effects of Stress

Stress is not just an adult problem. Children can experience stress so much so that it alters their brain development. In a study done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they tested the spatial working memory of kids between the ages of 9-14. And the stressed kids had trouble with short-term memory tests.

Brain scans of these kids revealed a smaller anterior cingulate, the part of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) that has to do with spatial working memory and decision making. Researchers admit they don’t know if this finding is lasting or if it is simply a delay in development.

They were able to determine that puberty provided a heavy dose of stress. No surprise there.

In a study led by Dr. Zhen Yan, from the State University of New York at Buffalo, they also looked at the prefrontal cortex in relation to stress. “Previous work has shown that chronic stress impairs PFC-mediated behaviors, like mental flexibility and attention.

However, little is known about the physiological consequences and molecular targets of long-term stress in the PFC, especially during the adolescent period when the brain is more sensitive to stressors.”

Dr. Yan’s findings link chronic stress with abnormal PFC function, “[The way] stress affects the PFC should be critical for understanding the role of stress in influencing the disease process.”

Penn State College of Medicine did a study that investigated the effects of mental stress on the heart. They gave men and women math tests while they monitored their coronary blood flow. Everyone’s heart rate and blood pressure increased with the stress of the situation, but only the men’s coronary vascular conductance, blood flow through the heart, increased.

The women’s coronary vascular conductance remained the same.

The researchers concluded that the difference could predispose women to stress-related heart problems. “Stress reduction is important for anyone, regardless of gender, but this study shines a light on how stress differently affects the hearts of women, potentially putting them at greater risk of a coronary event.”

A study out of the University of Southern California suggests that stress influences people’s decision making. Authors found that when people were stressed they weighed risk and reward while thinking about the possible good outcomes over the bad.

While this can be a good thing at times, it can also make it tough for some people to control their urges, such as with any kind of addiction. A stressed addict will think only about the good feelings that come from using a drug or gambling rather than the negative consequences.

Studies are also coming out linking chronic stress to cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Research from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, points to chronic stress as a cause for tau proteins growing in the brain. Tau protein clusters are the hallmark sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

Authors noted, “You can’t eliminate stress. We all need to be able to respond at some level to stressful stimuli. The idea is to use an antagonist molecule to reduce the effects of stress upon neurons. The stress system can still respond, but the response in the brain and hippocampus would be toned down so that it doesn’t result in harmful permanent damage.”

So it’s chronic stress people need to manage. Carolyn Aldwin, PhD, professor of human development and family sciences at Oregon State University, conducted a study on stress and mortality rates. She followed 1,000 middle-class people from 1985 to 2003 and concluded that, “[B]eing married and having a glass of wine every night is the secret to a long life.”

“It seems there is a threshold and perhaps with anything more than two major life events a year and people just max out. We were surprised that…the moderate group had a similar risk of death to the high risk group.”

“People are hardy, and they can deal with a few major stress events each year. But our research suggests that long term, even moderate stress can have lethal effects.”

Positive Coping Mechanisms

Some stress can be avoided, but the rest must be faced head on. Work, bills, money, time management, health and family are, for the most part, unavoidable. Even if they are good most of the time, when they get stressful, it is taxing. The key is to learn a few positive coping techniques to help manage stressors that can’t be eliminated.

Not everything works for everyone, so make sure to try out a few things until one fits just right. Last year, UCLA did a study on the stress-reducing capacity of Transcendental Meditation and found a 36 percent reduction in people’s psychological distress.

If meditation doesn’t do the trick here are a few suggestions, even if you only have 20 minutes a day to spare: yoga or stretching, going for a leisurely walk in a neighborhood or park, taking a bath, or reading for fun.

All of these things are good activities for the mind or body that don't tax valuable resources. Providing a chance for the mind and body to recharge is a great way to hit the reset button and emerge refreshed and ready to face the next challenge.

Review Date: 
June 20, 2012