We, the inhabitants of the exasperated 21st century have turned a deaf ear to the word ‘STRESS’. It may seem bizarre but even the most educated and refined of us are not aware and well-cultivated on the banes of this hazardous ailment. Yes, that’s right! Stress is not just desolation or agony but it also plays a role in the development of various brain disorders.
A superficial view of society may portray a hale and hearty state when it comes to stress. But, only someone with the issue can reveal the decrepit nature of the mental state and constant struggle to cope up with the mental pain. This is where society gives escalation to stress and its cons. Gone are the days when a three-year-old child could spend his days frolicking and sleeping to his mother’s lullabies. No wonder that one may hear even a child saying – “Mom, I’m stressed!”
The Oxford Dictionary defines Stress as a mental or emotional strain or tension. The National Institute of Mental Health describes different types of stresses all of which carry physical and mental health risks. Prolonged health risks thus give rise to a sluggish lifestyle and ultimately fatality. The earliest physical symptoms due to stress include severe headache, high blood pressure, weight loss, low energy, insomnia, upset stomach, constipation, frequent infections, and moodiness among others. Extreme stress may also lead to severe brain damage, heart stroke, sexual dysfunction, permanent hair loss, and gastrointestinal problems like GERD, ulcers, and irritative colon. So, with all these deadly aftermaths of stress, it has the liberty to be called a ‘Silent Killer’
Impacts of stress
The brain is the central and primary mediator of stress as it can determine what is threatening and regulates the psychological and behavioral responses to stressors. Hippocampus, which primarily supports memory and mood is the region that has the most impact on stress, specifically due to stress hormones. Stressful conditions cause changes in the release of stress hormones which can have an adaptive or maladaptive impact on the hippocampus, hypothalamus, and other regions in the brain.
Stress is associated with various endocrine or neural responses and the cost of chronic exposure to these responses is known as allostatic load. Primarily there are four psychological responses that contribute to allostatic load.
The first type of psychological response is correlated with frequent stressors. It is associated with high blood pressure that increases the risk of developing atherosclerosis and it is also the prime risk factor for myocardial infarction.
- Atherosclerosis is a heart disease that is characterized by the hardening and narrowing of arteries. It leads to the blockage of oxygen-rich blood to heart muscles and as a result, an increased risk of a heart attack.
- Myocardial infarction is defined as a life-threatening condition that leads to the complete blockage of arteries, which results in failure to supply nutrients and oxygen to the muscles in the body, including the heart muscle.
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The second type of allostatic load is associated with the failure to habituate to a repetition of the same stressor which results in a persistent increase in hormones like cortisol. Long-term exposure to cortisol or other stress hormones can impact or disrupts almost all the body processes. It increases the risk of various health problems such as anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, digestive disorders, and sexual dysfunction.
- Elevated cortisol level is associated with anxiety attacks. Cortisol is produced by adrenal glands and the most important product of hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis stress response. Anxiety disorders are accompanied by stress and are strongly associated with hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysregulation. Anxiety attacks significantly impair the quality of life of an individual.
- High cortisol level in the body is often accompanied by various sleep disorders, especially insomnia. Insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders experienced by people and it is characterized by problems in initiating sleep and maintaining sleep. People having insomnia finds it difficult to attain and maintain sleep.
- Evidence suggests that there is a relationship between cortisol and sexual functioning in men. Elevated cortisol levels in the body could result in reduced testosterone. Testosterone is the most important male sex hormone and fluctuation with this hormone impacts sexual functioning.
- Fluctuations in the cortisol level also cause gastrointestinal problems. Cortisol affects the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for regulating the digestion process and absorption.
The third type of allostatic load is associated with a failure to terminate adaptive autonomic and neuroendocrine responses. Prolonged stress is associated with elevated levels of glucocorticoids. Persistent glucocorticoids elevation could lead to the development of diseases like diabetes and obesity.
- Diabetes is a metabolic disease that is characterized by a high glucose level in the blood resulting from a problem with insulin secretion, insulin action, or both. Stress is considered to be one of the most common causes of diabetes as it has a direct impact on the glucose level. Stress affects glucose control. As a result, an elevated stress level leads to an elevated glucose level. Stress can also trigger the complications of diabetes as during stress people fails to take care of themselves.
- Obesity is defined as an excessive accumulation of fat in the body. It is a serious problem that affects the everyday functioning of a person. Stress is one of the factors that can cause weight gain and make a person obese or overweight. The correlation between stress and obesity is believed to be the components that are released during the state of stress. These components affect weight management.
The fourth type of allostatic load is associated with the failure of a body to respond to challenges such as autoimmune disorders and inflammation.
- The immune system in the body is regarded as a defense system that protects the body against bacteria, viruses, and other foreign invaders. Stress significantly affects the immune system and its ability to protect the body. As a result, a body is more likely to suffer from autoimmune disorders.
- Fibromyalgia is another disorder that is associated with elevated stress. It is a chronic pain disorder that is characterized by inflammation and musculoskeletal pain, accompanied by problems with memory, mood, and sleep. Stress reduction is considered to be the most common measure to treat and prevent fibromyalgia.
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