Most people live busy lives with many different work, family, and social responsibilities. Although each of these activities can bring satisfaction and enjoyment to these individuals, they can also cause stress. Both negative and positive events can cause stress. For example, getting married is generally thought to be a happy event; but for many people the planning, as well as the coming change, is very stressful. On the other hand, a negative event like losing a job or the death of a loved one can also cause individual stress. So, if stress can come from good or bad events, how does one avoid stress? The answer is that stress cannot be avoided, but it can be effectively managed.
The Benefits of Stress
Completely eliminating stress from one’s life would not be a good thing. Humans developed stress responses to help warn them of danger and to keep them safe. Feeling no fear stress when standing on the edge of a cliff or when faced with a venomous snake is not adaptive and puts one in more danger of being hurt. Similarly, in the workplace, stress develops to warn individuals when they are doing too much and need to slow down. Unfortunately, the body does not always understand workplace demands, and stress reactions may be triggered even when the body is not truly in danger. Stress must then be managed so that the individual can function effectively. Choosing to ignoring the stress and letting it get too high can be detrimental to one’s wellbeing.
The Physical Health Outcomes of Stress
Psychological stress can greatly affect one’s physical health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as many as 90% of all illnesses and diseases are related to stress. One stress-related medical condition is heart disease. Blood pressure increases with stress, and a high blood pressure level is one of the main risk factors for a cardiovascular problem. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Treatment and prevention of heart disease almost always include stress reduction and relaxation training. Another effect of chronic stress is a weakening of the immune system, leaving individuals more prone to infection. Meditation and relaxation have been shown to strengthen the immune system. On a daily basis, stress can contribute to symptoms such as upset stomach, decreased interest in sex, headaches, back pain, insomnia, and gastrointestinal issues. So, not only can stress contribute to life- threatening conditions, but it can also lead to a lot of non-life-threatening physical discomfort.
The Mental Health Outcomes of Stress
Beyond physical ailments, psychological stress can also contribute to psychological disorders, brain development, and brain connectivity. Some of the most common psychological disorders related to stress are depression and anxiety. Another stress-related disorder that is receiving quite a lot of attention these days is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The brain can change in response to the high levels of stress seen in PTSD and other stress-related disorders. The amygdala, which processes negative emotions, can become enlarged, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is used in higher-level decision-making, can shrink. The change can make the stress even worse. Understanding one’s personal risk factors for stress and learning how to reduce stress is important for one’s wellbeing.
Stress Blood Tests
Early detection of stress can reduce the impact that stress has on one’s mind and body. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to tell if one’s stress is normal or if it is too high. Many people do not even realize that the physical symptoms they are experiencing are related to stress. Blood tests can be used to estimate how much stress one is experiencing. A cortisol blood test is one of the most commonly used blood tests. Cortisol is a hormone that is released by the adrenal glands when one is under stress. Higher levels of cortisol would indicate higher levels of stress. Cortisol levels do change throughout the day with numbers being at their highest around 7 AM and reaching their lowest in the evening before bed. It is important for the lab to take note of what time of day the blood is being drawn. If the doctor believes that cortisol levels may be too high, he or she will likely order the blood test to be taken during the evening hours of the day. Knowing how much stress one is experiencing can be useful in understanding what steps need to be taken to reduce the risk of developing physical and mental health stress-related disorders. Blood tests are a safe and easy way to assess stress levels.