Chronic Psychological Stress is a Major Influence on Health
Psychological stress has become a major hazard to health in industrialized nations worldwide.
Stress is often described as a feeling of being overwhelmed, worried or run-down. Stress can affect people of all ages, genders and circumstances and can lead to both physical and psychological health issues. By definition, stress is any uncomfortable “emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioral changes.”1 Some stress can be beneficial at times, producing a boost that provides the drive and energy to help people get through situations like exams or work deadlines. However, an extreme amount of stress or chronic stress can have health consequences and adversely affect the immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and central nervous systems.
The rate of biological aging is modulated in part by genes interacting with stressor exposures. Prolonged exposure to stress can overwhelm compensatory responses (“toxic stress”) and shorten lifespan. The psychological stress response promotes regulatory changes important in aging (e.g., increases in stress hormones, inflammation, oxidative stress, insulin). The negative effects of severe stress are well documented in humans. Chronic stress is associated with enhanced vulnerability to diet-related metabolic risk (abdominal adiposity, insulin resistance, and oxidative stress).
The statistics around stress and burnout begin to explain the growing need for a different, healthier way of living and working. In late 2012, the World Health Organization estimated that more than 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression. In the U.S., self-reported levels of stress have increased 18 percent for women and 25 percent for men in the last 30 years. In some cultures, death and suicide related to overwork are common enough that countries have specific words for them — “guolaosi” in China, “gwarosa” in Korea and “karoshi” in Japan.
A significant part of the chronic psychological stress problem is work-related stress:
– Work-related stress is the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope.
– Stress occurs in a wide range of work circumstances but is often made worse when employees feel they have little support from supervisors and colleagues, as well as little control over work processes.
– There is often confusion between pressure or challenge and stress and sometimes it is used to excuse bad management practice.
Symptoms of acute stress can include:
– Acute traumatic stress symptoms (defined above)
– Dissociative symptoms, including somatoform conversion
– Enuresis (bedwetting)
1) Baum, A. (1990). “Stress, Intrusive Imagery, and Chronic Distress,” Health Psychology, Vol. 6, pp. 653-675.