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Stress and Disease: Who Gets Sick - Who Stays Well

Summary of a Cortext Educational Seminar

By Kathy Edstrom

In March of 2003 I attended a seminar on Stress and Disease. The presenter was Michael Meaney, PhD.

Dr. Meaney began his seminar by talking about the importance of understanding how stress can promote illness also allows us to define “pre-disease” states. This understanding can help us identify the conditions that characterize individuals who are well on their way to heart disease or depression, and to precisely identify what it is about these conditions that leads to disease.

What is stress? The definition of stress provided by Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman says, “Stress is defined as a condition that occurs when an individual perceives the demands of a situation as exceeding their resources.”

Each of us perceives stress differently. It is each individual’s reaction to the appraisal of that specific situation. These conditions can be real or imagined. According to Meaney, “we respond not to events, but rather to our perception of these events – what these events mean to us.” He goes on to say, “The same events can have very different meaning and significance to different people, and therefore elicit very different reactions.”

One of Dr. Meaney’s goals of this seminar was to help the audience understand how certain factors, notably early experience, can determine such individual differences in our perception of potential stressors, and how these differences influence the impact of these events on our health.

For the sake of clarity, let’s define eustress and distress. Eustress is a neutral or pleasurable event or thought that is “controllable”. Distress can be emotionally or physically threatening, severe, prolonged, unpredictable and “uncontrollable”.

It is the perception of controllability of that event that determines the nature of our body’s response. Some common responses to stress are people becoming sick; the prevailing symptoms worsen and people often experience a relapse of a certain illness. BUT not all individuals fall victim to the effects of stress!

We literally can “make” ourselves sick by having feelings of uncontrollability. When we feel that we have no effective means of coping with stressful situations, the stress response kicks in. Going back to Lazarus and Folkman, they suggest “that a situation is perceived as being stressful when the demands exceed the resources of the person – hence, when one cannot establish any level of control.”

In my practice I primarily work with animals, canines specifically. The stress response is no less true for animals. Some animals can handle stress better than others. It is how that dog, cat, horse, etc. perceives that specific event. Prior experiences also play a major role in how an individual will respond to a situation. Uncertainty impacts our perceptions, as does safety and security. Animals also deal with these issues. (This is when flower essence remedies can be very helpful.)

Meaney states, “Controllability and uncertainty are two factors that can determine the magnitude of the body’s response to a stressor. Life is most difficult when we are unsure of the intensity and the timing of the stressors, and have little means of control over them. These so-called “cognitive” factors greatly determine the way we respond to stress.”

Some factors that enhance resistance to stress are:

  • Youth
  • High social support
  • Efficient cognitive (coping) responses: being a calm problem-solver
  • Optimism (self confidence)
  • Absence of major genetic risk factors
  • Early childhood experiences
  • Greater sense of control in the situation, the less stressed one feels

Without going into a lot of medical theory, because I am not a medical doctor, I will keep the medical jargon at a minimum. However, in order to understand how stress affects the physical body, I will need to go into some detail about the physiology behind this.

This information is quoted directly from Dr. Meaney’s seminar syllabus.

“We meet the energy demands of the stressor by releasing stress hormones, glucorcorticoids and catecholamines, into the blood stream. These hormones serve to regulate metabolism during periods of stress. The glucocoritcoids and catecholamines act in concert to increase the production of glucose (sugar) from the liver. Moreover, stored forms of glucose, called glycogen, are also broken down and poured out into circulation. It does not stop there. The same hormones also drive the metabolism of selected fat stores, so now triglycerides and free fatty acids are liberated from fat stores and released into the blood stream. All to the good, since these fat metabolites can be used either as energy substrates, or in the production of even more glucose…Glucocorticoids and catecholamines not only enhance the production of energy, they also increase heart rate and arterial blood pressure, resulting in increased blood flow.”

The amygdala, which is part of the temporal lobe of the brain, is the area that is crucial for perceiving stressful events. It responds to any potentially threatening event. When distressed it contacts the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex then assesses the situation. It is the amygdala that lets the rest of the brain know that something bad has happened and how bad it is likely to be. This area of the brain is capable of a considerable degree of learning and memory. It is always monitoring incoming sensory information for any sign of potential danger. Then it notes the emotional significance of the event. According to Meaney, he believes that when you find yourself saying, “I don’t know why, but I don’t like it,” is your amygdala speaking.

The emotional memory function of the amygdala is absolutely necessary for survival, especially in animals. Research has shown that animals with amygdala lesions are completely unable to learn the noise-shock contingency, and expressed little fear at the onset of the signal.

The Raphe nucleus produces serotonin. Serotonin is the chemical that helps an individual respond rationally to that situation. People lacking serotonin react impulsively and aggressively.

Stress can create many disorders in the physical body. This list just begins to show how destructive stress can be to our mental, emotional, and physical bodies.

Physical illnesses that can be caused by stress:

  • Headaches
  • Sleep disorders
  • Muscle fatigue and pain
  • Listlessness
  • Increased infections
  • Digestive turmoil
  • Changes in appetite
  • Cushing’s Disease
  • Type II Diabetes (Adult on-set)
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart Disease
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Depression

By no means is the above list complete. Stress impacts all areas of our life. So, what can we do to de-stress ourselves?

Research has shown that exercise, meditation and massage can help reduce stress levels. Cardiovascular workouts along with changes in the diet can reverse Type II Diabetes by reducing the visceral fats in the bloodstream. Low-fat diets reduce the chances of developing atherosclerosis. Relaxation techniques have been found to reduce blood glucose levels, reduce blood pressure, assist with decreasing pain perception and anxiety, and improve cardiovascular function in patients with atherosclerosis. Healing Touch is one of the modalities that I utilize in my practice. It is excellent for relaxation and pain management.

Chronic stress increases irritability. This is a seriously damaging condition. Chronic stress is linked to an increase in reactivity, which activates the amygdala CRF neurons (corticotropin-releasing factor which is a peptide hormone that is one of the most influential neurotransmitters in the brain) and brain noradrenaline responses and the increased release of stress hormones. Irritability is closely associated with many forms of illness ranging from depression and drug addiction to diabetes and heart disease.

Stress often keeps us from getting a good night’s sleep. I haven’t met anyone who is in a good mood after a night of restlessness. Impaired sleep increases our irritability. This also increases our sensitivity to the threats in our environment, thus increasing our level of stress reactivity. Researchers have found that irritability is a predictor of both heart disease and diabetes.

Chronic stress disrupts our ability to learn and retain information. Again, this holds true for animals. For example, if you are training an animal under stressful conditions, whether you, the traineris feeling stressed, or you are putting a lot of pressure on the animal, this animal simply will not be able to learn and retain the behaviors being asked of him.

Stress creates a vicious cycle. Chronically elevated levels of stress hormones also increase lethargy and feelings of fatigue. As you will recall earlier in this article, exercise is a strong recommendation for lowering stress levels. Well, when I’m feeling lethargic and fatigued, the last thing I want to do is exercise. This is a tough cycle to break!

According to Meaney, “individuals who are very sensitive to threatening circumstances perceive a higher level of demand associated with life events”.

A researcher by the name of Richard Davidson has identified individual differences in the prefrontal cortex that are associated with the perception of life events. Such differences are associated with personality traits such as shyness-sociability and curiosity-timidity. I found this fascinating as I recall attending a seminar in the late 90’s on canine behavior and aggression. One of the main areas the presenter focused on was “shyness” and how this was the core inheritable trait passed on from parent to offspring.

I have a German shepherd who has always been considered “shy”. Bless his big heart; he also becomes stressed quite easily. He has developed various fears over his lifetime and by a combination of positive training, flower essences and Healing Touch, we have been able to overcome many of these fears. However, because of “shyness” being a core trait of Virgo, I may not be able to help him get beyond some of his fears because this is just who he is. AND that’s okay! Dogs are perfect at being dogs. They are perfect just the way they are.

I do believe this is true. By holding that thought close to my heart, this has made me a better dog trainer. It has helped me keep the pressure off of my dogs, off of myself, which in turn has greatly reduced our stress levels!

Now, back to Davidson. He recently has shown that individual differences in the function of the prefrontal cortex are also related to the levels of stress hormones in circulation. Therefore, the more timid and shy individuals have higher levels of stress hormones. I found this to be true with Virgo.

Low self-esteem also creates a high reactivity to stress. At the heart of low self-esteem, is the belief that one simply does not measure up to the challenges of life, feelings of inadequacy. (Check out Caroline Myss’ audio tape series on this topic.)

Bottom line: we will always have stress in our daily lives. There is no way to get around that fact. However, there are ways to effectively manage stress. I outlined these earlier in the article, but I’ll recap them here.

Relaxation techniques, such as meditation, yoga, aromatherapy, simply taking a walk, taking a warm bath with the essential oil lavender added to the bath water, reading a good book, playing with your pet or just sitting quietly with your eyes closed for even three minutes can decrease symptoms associated with chronic stress and potentially chronic illness.

Massage therapy, Healing Touch, Reiki, Acupuncture, Chiropractic and many other holistic modalities can be essential for reducing stress from the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual bodies. Keep this in mind for your pets as well. They deserve to be “de-stressed” at times too.

Physical exercise, whether it’s going for a bike ride, a brisk walk, jog, doing any cardiovascular workouts and/or lifting weights can all decrease levels of stress.

Let’s face it, stress is everywhere, but it’s how we perceive that situation as a potential threat and how we can look at the controllability aspects of that situation. The more resources we have to lower our stress levels, the higher our capability for handling that situation at a more rational level.

The next time you’re feeling stressed, try to step back from that scenario and call upon your own resources to help you respond in a healthier manner. We all have the ability to calm ourselves; we just need to tap into these special resources. If you need help initially, locate a holistic practitioner who specializes in relaxation techniques. Your amygdala will thank you as well as the rest of your mind, body and soul.

To learn more about this seminar and other Cortext Continuing Education courses, visit www.cortext.com Cortext has been educating the healthcare community since 1984.