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Stress can cause physical effects to a person’s body and mind. Stress may have an effect on blood pressure, blood sugar levels, increased heartbeat, and a lower digestive rate.
On a physical level stress can produce shoulder, back, and neck muscle tension, stomach and bowel upset, and if the stressful state persists over a long period of time it can lead to the weakening of the immune system (What are the Effects of Stress, 2007).
Stress affects a person psychologically by causing a decrease in concentration, moodiness, irritability, quick temper, unreasonable anger, less memory recall, less patience difficulty making decisions, and uncertainty towards the future due to not being able to cope with the present. If stress continues for a long period of time, it may lead to depression, crying, apathy, overall sense of doom, fear of failure, and a loss of confidence (What are the Effects of Stress, 2007).
There have been many studies done that have researched the effects of stress on the mind and body. The causes of stress and the effects that it has on a person’s mind and body are numerous. Some of these will be looked at in detail here. Job stress is one that can lead to various system dysfunctions, but until now no reliable biomarkers for its assessment have been identified. Allostatic load (AL) is an index that allows the cumulative effect on the body of chronic stress to be reviewed, and is derived from a set of relevant biological measures. In a study done by Sun, Wang, Zhang and Li (2007), a 13-parameter index was used to examine the relationship between job strain and AL. Participants were 1219 healthy Chinese employees. Job strain was measured using the Job Content Questionnaire, and AL was assessed by various possible stress responses, including blood pressure, cholesterol, indicators of glucose metabolism, and hormone and inflammation markers. AL in the high job strain group differed sharply from that in the low job strain group. The AL score was positively linked with age and educational level. Several individual factors also differed between the two groups. Men scored considerably higher on AL and cardiovascular and metabolic health outcomes, whereas for women the associations appeared in the biological indicators. Analyses showed that decision latitude (DL) and job demands were extensively related to AL. Job demands connected significantly with the primary biological indicators and DL with the secondary health outcomes. The conclusion of this study provided evidence of the value of measuring allostatic load in assessing the chronic effects of job stress. Job strain was positively and significantly associated with higher body mass index, systolic blood pressure, serum levels of TG, TC/HDL, and overnight excretion of cortisol. It was also found that long-term chronic stress may lead to neuroendocrine perturbations that may have consequences for blood pressure and obesity (Sun, Wang, Zhang and Li, 2007).
Nursing is an emotionally demanding job and this contributes to interactive stress and to the daily stress of nurses’ work. In addition, stress leads to more emotion focused coping – which is not constructive and causes nurses to seek social support. Stress is a normal reaction to a range of circumstances but can have negative consequences, one of which is emotional exhaustion; it has been demonstrated that factors leading to stress, such as increasing patient load, also lead to emotional exhaustion. The aim of a study done by Watson, Gardiner, Hogston, Gibson, Stimpson, Wrate and Deary, 2009), was to examine how a range of demographic, personal, circumstantial/environmental factors and stress contribute to differences in psychological distress in newly qualified nurses and nursing students. Psychological distress, stress levels and life events are all associated within time and across time. It was shown that life events and stress contributed significantly to psychological distress. Stress, adverse life events, individual traits and psychological distress are all interrelated.
The first scientific report regarding physiologic responses to stress was actually submitted in response to Walter Cannon’s study on the results of stress on the esophagus in 1896. It was during his first year as a Harvard medical student, he had been given the task to investigate the mechanisms of swallowing by taking advantage of the newly discovered Roentgen rays. These x-rays could show a faint image of inner body structures using a fluoroscope, but it was essential to sit in a very dark room or wear red goggles to get the best pictures. Cannon included bismuth in foods since it was opaque and blocked x-rays, which noticeably improved his ability to differentiate the peristaltic motion of waves that progressively propelled the contents of the gut forward. Bismuth was subsequently replaced by barium sulfate, which was less toxic, and is still used in GI series, barium enemas and other x-ray imaging procedures today (Rosch, 2007). His study showed that there was a definite connection between stress and the way in which the esophagus functioned.
Chronic psychosocial stress can lead to a destructive, self-perpetuating cascade of neuroendocrine, metabolic, inflammatory, and neuropsychological changes that promote the development of insulin resistance syndrome (IRS), atherosclerosis, and ultimately, cardiovascular disease (CVD). Chronic stress and related psychosocial factors can exert a powerful influence on the pathogenesis of both IRS and CVD. Given the importance of neuropsychological factors and sympathetic activation in the development of insulin-resistant states and the synergistic, mutually exacerbating effects of these and other IRS-related risk factors, mind-body therapies may have considerable potential in the prevention and management of CVD (Innes, Vincent and Taylor, 2007).
Anxiety and tension encourage the release of stress hormones like adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol into the body. This is fine when dealing with short-term stressors, but when a person sustains a high stress level for an extended time, these hormones begin to interfere with the body’s natural healing abilities. Over an extended period of time, a high level of stress can weaken tendons and ligaments, thin bones, cause muscle spasms, elevate blood pressure, increase cholesterol production and disrupt digestion, among many other negative effects (Dennis, 2004).
Recent studies have shown that stress or distress may have a significant effect on the onset, the course, and the management of many, if not all, diseases. Being able to understand a patient’s underlying stress physiology and coping mechanisms may help physicians to better understand various clinical disorders and treat their manifested symptoms (Selhub, 2002).
The primary-care physician can learn to address and recognize distress by first understanding the concept of stress itself. Not just a result of medical illness, stress is ever present. In the workplace, while driving, while speaking on the phone, while visiting the doctor’s office, or while watching world events transpire on television, individuals experience stress or feel threatened daily. These threats or stressors can be as minor as a change in the weather and the threat of being late, to more severe stressors, such as physical or emotional trauma or abuse. The mind does not distinguish between physical, psychological, or emotional threats and every time a threat is perceived, the physical response is virtually automatic; a response that is activated in order to help the individual adapt to stressors and survive. In fact, stress and the stress response are inherent to life. The response helps individuals rise out of bed in the morning, prevents them from being late to work, and allows them to be accomplished and to succeed. The response enables wounds to heal, athletes to run marathons, and individuals to survive traumas (Selhub, 2002).
Often, the stress response is neither well regulated nor contained and pathological consequences arise. Constant elevations in blood pressure and blood volume can result in wall thickening and tears. Excess production of fatty acids and glucose may lead to deposition in these tears and formation of atherosclerotic plaques, eventually resulting in atherosclerotic heart disease. Constant muscle tension and/or inflammatory activation may instigate various pain and musculoskeletal disorders. Chronic production of cortisol can lead to immunosuppression and increased susceptibility to infection and, some believe, tumors. Lack of blood flow to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and an increase in hydrochloric acid secretion may result in destruction of mucosal wall barriers and formation of peptic ulcer disease. Continuous production of cortisol may also decrease the availability of tryptophan, the precursor for serotonin, resulting in depression, other mood disorders, and changes in appetite and sleep. Hyperactivity of the stress response has been implicated in the pathophysiology of melancholic depression, anxiety, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, and cardiovascular disease. Conversely, hyporeactivity of the stress response has been associated with disorders such as atypical depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, hypothyroidism, and obesity (Selhub, 2002).
It has been shown that there is a definite connection between chronic stress and physical and psychological responses in the body. Stress in small amounts is fine, but chronic stress over a long extended period of time has been shown to manifest itself in a number of different physical and physiological aliments. It is believed by many experts that people should take steps to decrease their stress levels in order to fight off the ailments that are sure to follow.
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