Chronic Stress: the Bad Kind of Stress
In our present western society, we are commonly encountered by prolonged psychological stress. Now, stress gears up the bodily systems and releases hormones to improve memory, enhance immunity and increase muscular function (see: Acute Stress: the Good Kind of Stress). But when the stress is prolonged, the results are different. Memory is impaired, immune function decreases and excess energy is stored as fat.
Results of Chronic Stress
When the stress systems are continually and chronically stimulated, there are unpleasant consequences:
- Overexposure to cortisol can lead to weakened muscles and suppression of several bodily functions.
- Elevated epinephrine production increases blood pressure.
- In combination, increased levels of cortisol and epinephrine can contribute to chronic hypertension, abdominal obesity and atherosclerosis.
- Long exposure to adrenaline increases the activity of chemicals that contribute to inflammation and potentially lead to atherosclerosis, arthritis and perhaps even the aging of the brain.
A wide variety of stress-related disorders has been identified by scientists. These include:
- High blood pressure
- Clogged arteries
- Impotency and loss of sex drive in males
- Irregular menstrual cycles in females
- Adult-onset diabetes
- Possibly even cancer
- Overexposure to glucocorticoids increases the number of neurons damaged in a stroke
- Prolonged exposure to stress hormones before or immediately after birth, can lead to a decrease in brain size and a lower number of neurons.
Effects on the immune and cardiovascular system
- Immune system: while acute stress enhances immune function, by decreasing inflammation, autoimmunity and allergic reaction, glucocorticoid overexposure can be harmful because it increases tumor growth.
- Cardiovascular system: stressful experiences have a direct effect on heart rate and blood pressure. In the case of acute stress this helps the body respond to the stressor. But prolonged exposure to stress results in accelerated atherosclerosis and an increased risk of a heart attack.
Effect of Personality
The people at greatest risk of developing a stress-related disorder are those that are hostile, irritated by trivial things and exhibit signs of struggle against time and other challenges. This has been tested by exposing two groups of people (those with hostile personality traits and those with non-hostile traits) to some form of harassment. People with high hostility scores showed a much larger invrease in muscle blood flow and blood pressure, along with a slower recovery of these stress-induced effects. They also showed a larger increase in levels of stress hormones.
So, if you have personality traits that indicate a high hostility score, learning to reduce or avoid anger could be important to avoid cardiovascular and other bodily damage.