As we go through life and experience various stressors (which can be real or perceived threats) the body, in its infinite wisdom, responds in order to keep us safe. When left unchecked, we can get stuck in a state of hyper or hypo-arousal which can cause dis-ease in the body. Han’s Seyle, the founder of stress theory described stress as “The body’s nonspecific response to any demand, whether it is caused by or results in pleasant or unpleasant stimuli.” He helped to lay the foundation for our understanding of the relationship between stress and disease. Stress affects every system in the body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems. Our bodies are well equipped to handle small amounts of stress, but when stress becomes chronic and overwhelming, it can have serious effects both the body and mind.
Stress is considered to be one of the leading factors of chronic disease, along with physical inactivity, poor nutrition, excessive alcohol use, and tobacco use. In addition, stress can impact every dimension of a person’s well-being (emotional, occupational, physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual). With 76% of adults reporting at least one symptom of stress in the last month, if left unaddressed this can lead to burn out, and chronic illness. Below is a chart that helps to depict the chronic stress cycle, and how stress contributes to the leading chronic diseases.
Download Chronic Stress Cycle Chart
Over the last few years, self-reported stress has continued to rise, along with unhealthy coping strategies. In the March 2021 findings of the Stress in in America™ survey, there were several interesting findings regarding the impact of chronic stress. For example, close to half of adult (47%), said they have been less physically active, and 58% reported experiencing undesired weight changes. The average amount of weight gained was 26 pounds. In addition, 23% of Americans reported they had been drinking more alcohol, with an average of 10 drinks per week. Stress, along with unhealthy coping strategies continue to impact both physical and mental health.
With the vast majority of people living in survival mode, chronic stress is wreaking havoc on the health of our society. It is imperative that we address stress and look to ways to effectively manage it. Since so many of the reported stressors in the October Stress in in America™ survey are largely out of our control, Dr. Arthur Evans Jr., APA’s chief executive officer, states that “Focusing on accomplishing goals that are in our control can help prevent our minds from getting overwhelmed by the many uncertainties in life. From using our breathing to slow racing thoughts, to intentionally limiting our social media consumption, or exercising our right to vote, action can be extremely empowering.”
In closing, Dr. Arthur Evans says, “Living through historic threats like these often has a lasting, traumatic impact on generations, as a society, it’s important that we ensure access to evidence-based treatments and that we provide help to everyone who needs it. This means not only connecting those in distress with effective and efficient clinical care, but also mitigating risk for those more likely to experience challenges and engaging in prevention for those who are relatively healthy.” Now is the time to address lifestyle habits, effective stress management techniques, and resiliency training, so that we can better our own health, along with the health of future generations.