Role of stress in Chronic Diseases

Across the world, stress has become an integral part of modern life. It is extremely subjective and is associated with various symptoms that are individual-specific. 

But stress is not always negative. Physiologists define stress as how the body reacts to a stressor, real or imagined; a stimulus that causes stress. Some amount of stress can drive us to action. It is a response that could spell the difference between life and death. The autonomic nervous system provides a rapid response to stress commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. For example, when ancient humans were hunter gatherers, a confrontation with a predator it causes an adrenaline rush due to an increase in a hormone called cortisol. Overall the response is meant to either face off with the predator (fight) or escape to safety (flight). 

Today this kind of response is only relevant in only some situations. For example, slamming the brakes of your vehicle so as to avoid an accident or may be when an attacked by an assailant. The pressures of modern life are such that our body fails to distinguish between the urgency and relevance of different types of situations. The body reacts the same way whether it is an assailant attacking (positive stressor) or simply a deadline to be met (negative stressor - as it doesn’t require a physically enduring response). The energy surge during this response is often not properly channelized and our body fails to go into a relaxation mode which is just the opposite of stress response.

We continually experience situations which place unreasonable demands on us. Sometimes, it is we who persistently interpret situations as a challenge or threat to our status (imaginary stressor). So our body is in a continuous state of arousal which is detrimental to our health (chronic stress). 

Some of the chronic diseases associated with stress include depression, heart disease, diabetes and asthma. 

So how does stress lead to chronic disease? 

Stress affects our body through the reactions & changes brought about by the endocrine system and the immune system. Some of the ways in which stress can affect the body are as follows:-

  • The release of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol leads to increase in blood sugar. For a diabetic who has no compensatory mechanisms to regulate the blood sugar levels this can be very harmful.
  • The increase in the respiratory rate, breathing irregularity can spell trouble for an asthmatic whose airways also become more prone to inflammation in response to stress.
  • Chronic stress is associated with elevated blood pressure which is a risk factor for heart disease.
  • It is also associated with metabolic syndrome which is a group of conditions that increase the risk for heart disease and diabetes.
  • It can result in the onset or aggravation of depression.
  • It can increase our susceptibility to infection.
  • Stress also affects our body through the changes it causes in our behaviour.

 “In most cases stress is the root cause of death; illnesses are just the wrap up” -Yordan Yordanov 

It is thus imperative to reduce and cope with the unhealthy stress caused by our daily life. Awareness about stress being responsible for chronic diseases is the first step to address this growing problem in the modern world. 

Read more about a scientific review on the relationship between stress and disease here

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