Stress. It affects us all. In fact, it is so common to our everyday life that it seems to be our new norm. Besides a headache or sore neck and shoulders what's the big deal if I have stress in my life? Well actually, long-term, low-grade stress can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stoke, contribute to infertility, speed up the aging process, and according to some recent research is being discovered as a major contributing factor to certain cancers. Chronic stress can even reprogram the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
Hmmm...okay. So how do I know if stress is affecting my every day life? Well since the mind may be accustomed to this chronic stress, the best way to tell is to take a little looksie at the bod. Let's start with your skin.
Skin is the body's largest organ. It reflects what is going on fairly directly. Stress causes eczema, hives, rosacea, psoriasis, alopecia, and vitiligo. There's also a correlation between stress and acne. Basically when stress disturbs the body's homeostasis, or balance, your hormones can malfunction, impairing the rejuvenation of your skin. Skin is always in the process of renewal, and completely rejuvenates itself in 28 days when you are young but slows down as you age. Emotional stress retards cell renewal, destroys collagen fibers in the skin, and breaks down elastin. That means sags and wrinkles, people. Research also shows that stress causes the barrier protection of the skin to break down, affecting skin hydration and its normal immune function. This breakdown is part of the reason why we often get sick during times of stress.
The skin is not the only thing affected. Oh no. Chronic stress may result in thinning and dulling of your hair. Hair loss is very common for people under unrelenting stress. Stress can affect the hair in two ways: telogen effluvium, when your hair follicles go into a resting phase and fall out two to three months later (hair will grow back six to nine months after), and the second is alopecia, a more inflammatory response. Alopecia is when hair follicles are attacked by immune cells. This leads to patches of hair loss or even entire scalp. However this hair loss will subside once your stress does as well.
Stress Makes You Look Older
Stress can also damage your DNA which causes aging to speed up. Elissa Epel, a psychologist, and Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel laureate in cellular biology, discovered this in a landmark research study at the University of California at San Francisco. The study compared thirty-nine healthy mothers who cared for a chronically ill child with nineteen women raising a healthy child. They chose to work with mothers of young children because mothers experience chronic stress at a young age; full-time caregivers tend to have little time for themselves and make huge personal sacrifices.
The study had two levels of assessment: physiological and psychological. They took blood samples to check the most fragile part of chromosomes called the telomere. Think of a telomere as the tips of shoelaces, if you lose the tips of your shoelaces, they start to fray. Telomeres are instrumental in determining the health and life span of cells; they protect DNA and promote genetic stability in the same way, by preventing the DNA strands from unraveling. An enzyme telomerase restores the length of the telomere when they get worn and replenishes a portion of the telomeres, allowing the cell to replenish itself. As we get older, we stop making as much telomerase, and thus our body ages. As more cells die we rock the bad eyesight, hearing, wrinkles, and loss of muscle.
The study found that the longer the mothers had been exposed to the stress of caring for a chronically ill child, the lower their telomerase-repair activity had been and the worse shape their DNA was in. The cells of the high-stress women appeared to be nine to seventeen years older than the cells of the lower-stressed women.
So the moral of the story is stress is not just something to worry about tomorrow. We've got to stop it now!! The good news is the way we perceive a particular situation determines whether or not it is stressful to you. The study also found that mothers who coped well under stress, as their psychological assessments revealed, who didn't let it get to them, did not suffer the same level of damage to their telomeres. However that in no way means, "Just deal with it." Stuffing stress can actually be more harmful than expressing it. This is what is called mind-body disconnect-when a person has a stress related disorder even though they do not report feeling stressed or they feel that stress is making them sick when there is no evidence of illness in their body. Time to get real with ourselves, people.
To help us to determine if stress is a part of our lives let's take a look at some warning signs:
The Warning Signs and Symptoms of High Stress
- Nervousness or anxiety
- Sadness or depression
- Sleep disorders
- Lack of interest, motivation, or energy
- Inability to concentrate
- Muscle tension, especially in the neck and shoulders
- Upset stomach, bloating, appetite changes
- Dizziness or faintness
- Tightness in chest
- Reduced sexual desire
- Skin problems such as rashes, acne, or hives
- Aches and pain
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Hair loss or dullness
...just to name a few. If you can relate to any of these, make an effort to keep track of these symptoms. Dr. Stephanie McClellan recommends keeping a journal of these symptoms along with notes of events in your life such as: deadlines, work environment, schedule, holidays, finances, disagreements with your special someone or family member, etc. And remember stress is such an ingrained part of our lives that instinctually it's not going to feel like you are stressed, so it's going to take some serious objectivity on your part. Awareness is the first step. In the weeks to come we will look at what's going on with our brain and body when we're stressed and finally how to combat it! Until then, remember awareness is the first step!!
McClellan, Stephanie, M.D., & Hamilton, Beth, M.D. (2010). So Stressed. New York: Free Press.
Smith, Melinda, M.A., & Robert Segal, M.A., & Segal, Jeanne, Ph.D. (2014, July). Stress Symptoms, Signs, & Causes. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/mental/stress_signs.htm