This Is Your Body on Stress

Doctors are only now taking stress seriously as a health threat in its own right. Here, a look at the profound change in the approach to a cure.
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A Second Look at Stress

"It's probably just stress." How many times have you heard those words from your doctor -- or uttered them yourself -- as you complained about the latest ache in your shoulder or pain in your stomach? Before you write it off as just stress, think again. Stress isn't something to be ignored. It's a whole-body experience that, if left unchecked and untreated, can make you old before your time. No body part is spared. From your brain and heart to your muscles and immune system, stress can affect every part of you, leaving you vulnerable to pain, illness, and disease. Stress-related complaints account for at least three-quarters of office visits to doctors, and more than 40 percent of all adults suffer health problems as a result of stress. But research shows that stress affects men and women differently -- not just physically, but in the way they cope with it. A poll by the American Academy of Family Physicians, based in Leawood, Kansas, showed that 42 percent of women regularly fail to manage their stress, compared with 31 percent of men.

So why don't we take stress more seriously? Probably because people think of stress as an emotional state. They don't realize that this emotional response triggers a cascade of physical changes. Of course, a little stress isn't always bad. The pressure of a job deadline can inspire a burst of creativity; the adrenaline triggered during an emergency can help us think clearly and act quickly. But the daily, unrelenting stress that many people experience -- bills, work, unruly kids -- can be remarkably hard on the body. When daily life means your internal stress switch gets stuck in the "on" position, stress can start to take an exacting toll on virtually every body part.

It's not just high blood pressure or heart attacks. Stress can give you headaches, back pain, indigestion, depression, diabetes, and sleep problems. Stress can make you fat, cause your hair to fall out, and ruin your sex life. It wears on your heart, your memory, and your immune system, and may even give a boost to those rogue cells that can eventually lead to cancer. "Stress isn't a single experience," says Bruce S. McEwen, professor of neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University, in New York City, and author of The End of Stress as We Know It. "It can have a cascading effect that affects your whole lifestyle."

It's impossible to predict exactly how stress will take its toll and where you will feel it most. Some people tense up and feel aches in their muscles; others get headaches or tightness in the chest. How your body responds to stress is determined by genetics, your lifestyle, and even your earliest life experiences (childhood trauma and emotional distress can make you more vulnerable to stress as an adult). Whether you have power and control at work, close friendships and a good marriage also play a role.

Visible physical reactions are only the most obvious signs. Inside the body, stress triggers changes that can take years to show up. "Stress definitely takes a quiet toll," says Robert Sapolsky, PhD, a neuroendocrinologist at Stanford University, in California, and one of the nation's leading stress researchers.

Continued on page 2:  The Early-Aging Effect

 

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