Stress and Human Health
Nobody likes stress. It can undermine our happiness, productivity and relationships, yet many of us cannot seem to escape its grip. Humans are often unable to turn off their stress response, which produces chronically high levels of hormones such as adrenaline. In recent years, researchers have found a wide range of evidence demonstrating the negative effects of chronic stress on human health, which can have debilitating physiologic effects on the body.
Dr. Carol Shively (Wake Forest University) has done research showing that the human cardiovascular system is very negatively affected by stress, resulting in more plaque build-up in the arteries (atheroschlerosis) which increases the risk of heart attack. She has also found that chronically stressed individuals tend to concentrate fat distribution in the abdominal area, which is widely considered to be a significant health risk indicator. Shively and other researchers believe that stress could in fact be a critical factor in the global obesity epidemic.
Neurobiologist Dr. Robert Sopalsky (Stanford University) has found that chronic stress also produces smaller brain cells, which affects memory and the ability to learn. Individuals with high stress levels may even have a reduced ability to experience pleasure due to a lack of the chemical dopamine in the brain. Research has found that stress can also significantly accelerate the aging process and even shut down the immune system, opening the door to a wide array of disease and ailments.
Interestingly, there also appears to be a strong social component of stress. Sir Michael Marmot, Director of the Institute of Health Equity (University College, London), has found evidence that â€śâ€¦if people are disempoweredâ€¦have little control over their lives, [or] if they’re socially isolatedâ€¦then there are [negative health] effectsâ€ť. His research has shown that if workers have little autonomy and decision-making power, that they will have higher stress levels, decreased work satisfaction and productivity, and experience greater health problems.
Biologists such as Dr. Elissa Epel (University of California, San Francisco) now believe that having compassion and helping others through social affiliation may reduce stress and enhance longevity by promoting positive chemical reactions which actually protect our genetic chromosomes. Many social psychologists such as John Cacioppo (University of Chicago) also believe that the key to human health and happiness lies in the success of our social relationships, with more isolated individuals having a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, dementia and suicide.
A major step toward sustainable personal wellness appears to lie in breaking the cycle of chronic stress, which can be challenging in a world which is largely defined by a perceived scarcity of time, money and recognition. But if the research on social connectedness and human health is any indication, then improving our own well-being may very well lie in focusing less on ourselves, and more on others. It may be the greatest of human paradoxes: that investing more in the needs of people around us can actually reduce our own stress and improve our overall health and long-term prosperity.
Be sure to check out SCHâ€™s Green Health Task Force to learn more about becoming involved in health and sustainability issues!
Paul Hanley is a long-time Cherry Hill resident, freelance writer and Environmental Science professor at the Community College of Philadelphia. Look here on Sustainable Cherry Hill for more upcoming blogs from Paul in the coming weeks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.