After a semester’s worth of study on the interplay between emotion, stress, and health, it is no wonder that stress and disease are so closely intertwined. The word disease itself, or dis-ease, literally means lack of ease and implies that there is some level of stress present. Ultimately, it seems that it is not only whether we are stressed, but how we respond to stress that alters our chances for disease. Unfortunately, we do not always make the best choices when it comes to responding to stressors, and can often exhibit behaviors that worsen the impact of stress and increase our risk for disease.
The plainest example of negative coping with stress is using substances to numb, or ease the psychological pain associated with stress (see post titled Substance Abuse and Stress). For example, due to the antagonistic input of cocaine in the brain, this drug can lead to your brain being flooded with dopamine to bring about feelings of intense pleasure. However, there is of course a downside to the pleasure, in that withdrawals from using drugs can be immensely painful and lead to further craving for the drug. Tolerance can build, meaning that higher dosages are needed to create the same high. Addictions can take hold and over a short period of time, what was once a “wanting” for the drug becomes “needing”. Withdrawals can further intensify, and soon rehabilitation is needed in order to ever break free from the grips of the drug. What started out as a way to cope with stress becomes the greatest source of stress, and can lead to breakdowns in social support, and societal standing (two great determinants of stress).
Another behavior that we often partake in is eating too much and eating the unhealthiest foods (see post titled Obesity: Treating the Symptom as a Diagnosis). Because foods that are high in fat and sugar can dampen the stress response, for individuals who are chronically stressed, it is important they are aware of their stress levels and what they consume. What might start off as a single time of eating unhealthy foods can eventually spiral into obesity, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome. Of course, high fat and high sugar foods can have an addictive quality to them, and even when an individual is not stressed, the craving could be present as a matter of biological impulse. Interestingly, the only naturally occurring place where we see this 50/50 combination of sugar and fat is in breast milk, which suggests that when we are stressed, we are in touch with our primal needs and what we want most is what also dampened our stress response as infants.
So if we’re not supposed to commonly eat these high fat and high sugar foods, what can we do to deal with the stress? It seems that there are lifestyle choices that we can make that can at least mitigate the biological and psychological impact of stressors. In particular, regular exercise has been shown to lower emotional stress reactivity (see post titled Stress Management: Let Go and Live a Little), and can prevent and intervene with biological and psychological diseases, such as obesity, depression, anxiety, and Type 2 diabetes. Another supplementary lifestyle change that has promising results for mitigating reactive stress response is mindfulness. Daily practice of mindfulness has primarily been associated with better psychological outcomes, but shows some evidence of better health outcomes as well (i.e. temporarily lowering blood pressure).
How much control do we really have over our risk for disease and the impact of stress in our lives? It certainly is debatable and individual differences exist for each of us. However, there are certainly some negative behaviors that we can avoid that can potentially exacerbate risk for disease. Furthermore, we can begin to implement practices and habits in our lives that can perhaps decrease chronic stress and increase our chances for happier and healthier lives.