Stress—The “Slow Poison”
“We hear people say all the time, ‘Don’t get yourself so stressed out that you become sick.’ They probably don’t realize there is an actual biological basis for that.”—Dr. David Felten.
JILL, a single mother with a teenage son, a dwindling bank account, and a strained relationship with her parents, already had ample reason to feel stressed-out. Then, unexpectedly, an itchy, burning rash developed on her arm. She tried antibiotics, cortisone creams, and antihistamines, but none of these helped. Instead, the rash spread all over Jill’s body, including her face. Stress was literally getting under her skin.
Jill was referred to a dermatology clinic that examines the emotional state of its patients. “We try to find out what’s going on in their lives,” says Dr. Thomas Gragg, the clinic’s cofounder. He often finds that in addition to needing medical care, people with stubborn skin problems need help managing stress. “It would be simplistic to say that the way you feel or act causes skin disease,” Dr. Gragg admits. “But we can say that one’s emotional state can play a large part in skin disorders, and we shouldn’t keep writing prescriptions for steroid cream without also helping a person to work on the stress in her life.”
Jill feels that learning to manage stress literally saved her skin. “I still have flare-ups,” she says, “but my skin is nothing like the disaster it was.” An unusual case? Hardly. Many doctors believe that stress is often a factor in a number of dermatologic conditions, including hives, psoriasis, acne, and eczema. But stress can affect more than just your skin.
Stress and Your Immune System
Current research shows that stress can suppress your immune system, perhaps opening the door to a number of infectious diseases. “Stress doesn’t make you sick,” says virologist Ronald Glaser. “But it does increase your risk of being sick because of what it does to your immune system.” There is particularly compelling evidence linking stress to colds, the flu, and herpes. Although we are continually exposed to such viruses, our immune system normally fights them off. But some experts say that when a person is under emotional distress, these defenses can fail.
The biological mechanisms involved are not yet fully understood, but some theorize that the hormones that gear you up for action when you are under stress can hamper your immune functioning as they surge through the bloodstream. Usually, this is not a cause for concern, since these hormones are only on a temporary mission. Nevertheless, some say that if a person faces stress that is ongoing and intense, his immune system may be compromised to the extent that he becomes susceptible to illness.
This might help to explain why Canadian doctors estimate that some 50 to 70 percent of the office visits they handle are stress-related, typically involving headaches, insomnia, fatigue, and gastrointestinal problems. In the United States, the figure is estimated at between 75 and 90 percent. Dr. Jean King feels that she is not exaggerating when she says: “Chronic stress is like slow poison.”
Neither Sole Cause nor Sole Cure
Despite the foregoing, scientists are not sure that stress alone can affect the immune system enough to make a medical difference. Thus, it cannot be stated dogmatically that everyone who faces stress, even in its chronic form, will succumb to a disease. Conversely, it cannot be said that the absence of stress will guarantee good health, nor is it wise to refuse medical attention on the misinformed notion that illness can be willed away through optimism and positive thinking. Dr. Daniel Goleman cautions: “The result of this attitude-will-cure-all rhetoric has been to create widespread confusion and misunderstanding about the extent to which illness can be affected by the mind, and, perhaps worse, sometimes to make people feel guilty for having a disease, as though it were a sign of some moral lapse or spiritual unworthiness.”
It must be realized, therefore, that the cause of an illness can rarely be narrowed down to a single factor. Still, the connection between stress and illness emphasizes the wisdom of learning how to alleviate this “slow poison” whenever possible.
Before considering how this can be done, let us take a closer look at the nature of stress and how in some cases it can even be good for you.
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Some Ailments That Have Been Linked to Stress
• back, neck, and shoulder pain
• gastrointestinal problems
• heart problems
• peptic ulcers
• sexual dysfunction
• skin problems
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A high percentage of visits to the doctor are because of stress