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27 March 2007

Does stress make you ill?

People respond to stressful events and circumstances in a variety of ways.

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People respond to stressful events and circumstances in a variety of ways.

I know of someone who stood up in the middle of his exams and started smoking - such behaviour was quite out of character for him. Others have blacked out during interviews. We all know people who under-perform in a testing situation due to "over-stress".

For the majority of people an appropriate level of stress coaxes the very best out of them. Our responses to stressful events of this nature are characterised by a set of conditioned and inherited responses collectively referred to as the "fight-or-flight" responses.

Many of our body responses to outside stimuli are regulated by a system of nerves and hormones called the autonomic nervous system. This system has two more or less opposing sub-systems known as the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. To simplify the matter consider this:

The parasympathetic system is responsible for unwinding the body, getting the bowels working properly as well as some recuperative and growth functions.

The sympathetic system (mainly adrenaline based) focuses on short-term survival. It shuts down "unnecessary" functions such as bowel activity and gears everything up for fighting or running away (the two basic responses that our forebears had when confronting a sabre-toothed tiger). Blood is diverted from the bowel to muscles. The pupils dilate in order that smaller changes in light intensity and movement can be more quickly seen. The heart beats faster to get oxygen and energy to the muscles faster. The airways dilate so that oxygen can get into the bloodstream more quickly and efficiently.

Unfortunately, the similarity between stressful exams or job interviews and sabre-toothed tigers are limited. So many of the changes are less than useful in facing the stress of the late 20th century. Some of the symptoms of the sympathetic system to "fight or flight " are a need to empty the bowel or bladder more often - not very useful in an examination room! Other changes are useful - increased blood flow to the brain with increased mental functioning and better reflexes.

In addition to the physiological aspects described above, there are other responses which each of us has which have to do with our consciousness and are more difficult to explain. These are the psychological responses and are conditioned by our previous experiences of coping with stressful events. A feedback loop can develop between the psychological and physiological systems resulting in a disproportionately large stress response to a relatively minor stressor.

What about ongoing stress to which so many people are exposed - the increasing stress of daily living? The stress of living in a violent society, of over- demanding working conditions, financial stress or an unhappy marriage? What effect does this continual psychological and physiological load on our systems have? To answer the question I will take a step back and look at another aspect concerning health and disease in the human body.

Some unanswered questions
Why is it that when ten people in the same room are exposed to the flu virus, not all of them develop flu? If smoking causes cancer, why is it that not all smokers develop cancer? Being overweight leads to adult onset of diabetes. However not all overweight adults get diabetes. The list goes on and on.

The way the flu virus causes flu is well described, as is the manner in which cigarette smoke causes cancer or being overweight causes diabetes. But these well understood and relatively simple mechanisms are clearly not always found in everybody. Some people may be better nourished than others, have better immune systems than others, or have some other physiological advantage. Even when taking these factors into account, it does not adequately explain the differences in individual susceptibility to disease.

A senior academic at the University of Cape Town Medical School once speculated on the susceptibility to tuberculosis in the Western Cape as being related to some innate, as yet unmeasured characteristic of the people in the Western Cape.

All healing methodologies (except for western allopathic medicine) describe the human body as having an energy form which is separate from the physical body and which we can measure and observe. Each has a different name and understanding to energy. There is, however, a common theme in all of them. It is postulated that this energy becomes weakened at points through exposure to, amongst other things, ongoing stress.

While some conditions are clearly and obviously exacerbated by stress (examples being asthma and eczema) allopathic medicine has been reluctant to accept this as a partial explanation of why some people get diseases while others in similar circumstances do not.

Recently the study of Psycho-neuro-immunology (PNI) is being increasingly accepted. In a nutshell the study of PNI is starting to show that our emotions and psychological state can affect our nervous system which in turn influences our immune system. If our immune system is affected then our susceptibility to diseases is increased.

Thus, to answer the question posed several paragraphs back - ongoing stress can be part of the process of aggravating any number of diseases. As usual, a word of caution is necessary. Because we have these diseases does not mean that we have brought them on ourselves due to stress, or that being stressed will necessarily mean that we will get a disease. This is only one among many complex pathways which ultimately lead to disease.

A completely unstressed smoker can still get cancer from smoking. The basic message is this: developing healthy ways of dealing with stress is as wise as giving up smoking and relinquishing other unhealthy lifestyles.

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