With the added pressures in society and the work place, stress has become an increasing common denominator to many. Empirical findings have established a less consistent relationship between stress, disease and illness than society would like us to believe. However, with an increasing number of studies being created in the last 20 years, a greater understanding has developed highlighting the possible destructive effect it can create without a resolution to the situation. The term stress describes any demand to our bodies, whether it is physical or mental. Most commonly we associate stress with negativity, however, studies have shown that enjoyment and motivation can also be an outcome achieved through stress’ this is known as eustress. Many psychologists have developed different hypothesis’ understanding the link between stress and illness, from depression, cardiovascular complications and common colds. However research is consistently progressing in this field taking steps towards a greater understanding and ability to then achieve the correct guidance and help for stress sufferers consequently suppressing the high volume of people affected.
Stress, whether it be good (eustress) or bad (distress) is one of the most apparent ways to see the connection between your mind and body. Stressors can come in a variety of forms. Some may require an immediate response for example, seeing a car driving towards an elderly person at high speed. In contrast we can also experience a slower, more ongoing challenge such as writing an essay, this would call for a more prolonged response. When it comes to dealing with different stressors that may arise in our lives our bodies have developed two different systems- one is described as ‘fast’ and the other a ‘slow’. Together these systems give us the flexibilities to handle the variety of stressors thrown at our everyday lives. Most commonly our ‘fast’ pathway is known as the fight-or-flight response, formally known as the Sympathetic Adrenomedullary system (SAM). When our brains recognize that an urgent response is needed a signal is passed to the hypothalamus, a small section in the middle of the brain that is in control of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Nerve impulses are then sent from the sympathetic branch of the ANS down to the adrenal glands, which as a consequence release adrenaline. Once the adrenaline is in the blood stream immediate responses are send to different parts of the body speeding up our heart and respiration rate providing us with more oxygen. The increase in heart rate and blood pressure heightens the risk of then developing physical damage to the cardiovascular system for example; heart attacks, atherosclerosis and strokes. When under extreme or sudden stress you may lose your appetite or obtain a dry mouth this is caused by our digestive system shutting down. The sudden increase of adrenaline created by the SAM system works efficiently to aid us out of sudden stressful situations and then the levels will fall again once our bodies believe we are out of danger to a more relaxed state. However if the stressor continues for more than a couple of minutes the ‘slow’, longer lasting system kicks in formally known as Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA). As above the stressor in question is processed by the hypothalamus in the brain but this time releases the hormone directly into the bloodstream via the pituitary gland. This then sets off multiple chemical events through the body resulting in the release of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol helps to regulate blood pressure, glucose levels and the immune response, just to name a few. Another benefit to this hormone when circulating our body is it’s ability to help us deal with stress. Green (1994)
With a growing number of studies demonstrating that psychological factors may be increasing our risk of developing coronary complications and subsequently cardiac death. Chandola et al, (2008) conducted a study focusing on past research that ‘work stress’ has an impact on the likelihood that we could develop coronary heart disease (CHD). They concluded that although ‘This study demonstrates that stress at work can lead to CHD through direct activation of neuroendocrine stress pathways and indirectly through health behaviours.’ Chandola et al. (2008) there is most likely other cofounders that contribute towards the link between work stress and CHD such as other sources of stress, individual differences (for example smoking and higher alcohol intake), and different personality types.
Through previous research peoples differentiating personalities have concluded in ‘groups’ being formed dependant on individual traits. Studies have been created to measure the correlation between their lifestyle and the risk of CHD. There have been adverse results published resulting in mixed reactions and trustworthiness in this area. Denollet and Van Heck (2001) created an article highlighting the relationship (or lack of) between Type D individuals and heart disease using a previous study by Pedersen and Middel (2001). Type D represents an individual who will often focus on negative emotions. In the past they have been connected with a higher risk of fatal and non-fatal cardiac complications from previous patients suffering with coronary heart disease. Although previous studies have shown minimal results, more research needs to be completed in this field to gain a greater understanding, taking into consideration other factors which could affect the results, for example environmental influences. Denollet and Van Heck (2001) believe that ‘in addition to measuring specific psychological factors in coronary patients such as depression or social support, it is also important to assess constructs that are based on broad, stable dimensions of normal personality’. At the same time, new evidence supports using the personality approach when identifying if the patient could be at a higher risk of developing cardiac (heart) complications.
Another behavioural group that has been a topic of interest is ‘Type A’. Some of their traits include: Competitiveness, time pressured, angry and hostile. Rosenman et al, (1976) conducted a western collaborative study concluding individuals possessing certain attributes to their personalities (as listed above) are at a higher risk of developing CHD even when lifestyle factors were taken into consideration. However, Shekelle et al., (1985) produced a very similar study 9 years later resulting in a different conclusion. He believed there was no evidence that Type A is any more likely to suffer from CHD than Type B. This is just one example to show the level of difficulty correlating stress to illness.
Depression has become the most common psychiatric illness among the western population. Whether depressive symptoms are slight or major Kiecolt-Glaser and Glaser (2002) believe they carry considerable health risks. Their paper concentrates on how depression may add to morbidity and mortality through the immune system caused by an abnormality in the psychological process. They argue that the changes in the immune and endocrine systems could be directly prompted by depression. In addition to this they believe stress and depression could prolong infections from getting better and prevent wounds healing as quickly. With further research addressing the dysregulation of the immune system correlating with depression a higher understanding could be achieved for psychological influences and our health. Loveday (2016) focuses on a “stress hormone” released into our bodies otherwise known as cortisol. Blood pressure, wound healing, liver and kidneys are just a few daily functions that the hormone regulates throughout your day. Consequently this enables our bodies to adapt easily to change when we need it. If you live a healthy lifestyle it is likely cortisol follows a regular routine in your everyday life. Levels of cortisol peak when we wake up in the morning helping our brain get ready for the upcoming events. The levels gradually decrease throughout the day. However, the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR) can also be an indicator of poor health and wellbeing. Often levels of the stress hormone are irregular in individuals suffering from depression and other illnesses.
In summary, whether through work, the physical environment or another contributing factor, stress has become an increasing issue in our everyday lives. Researchers have clarified the biological mechanisms of ‘how’ our bodies react as a consequence of stress however a large area is still unexplained. Due to a vast range personalities and lifestyles it is very difficult to establish a strong connection between illness and stress. Stress is complex and ‘even today there is not one particular definition for the term, and over 30 models’ Green (1994) however, the attention to stress and illness in society is growing therefore research is growing alongside.