Stress, What is it Good for?

13 09 2010

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Way back in the day people spoke of Type A and Type B personalities and the associated proclivities for Type A people to develop heart attacks as a result of stress. I remember that being discounted during my medical training as a bit of pseudoscience in that it was not as rigorously defined and executed as it should have been. Heart attacks, we were taught, were the result of physiological processes, not emotions. But slowly the data began to trickle in, gathering veracity in its consistency. Stress affected many physiological functions. Just the mental stress of hard math problems was shown to precipitate angina, or heart pain.

Stress of any origin sets in motion a cascade of physiological responses. Nerves are activated, hormones secreted and organs affected both in the short-term and in the long-term. A study from the Netherlands looked at the level of stress hormones in the body in subjects over a six-year period,. In patients over 65 years of age, high levels of stress hormones increased the risk of cardiovascular events like heart attacks. High levels of stress hormones increased the risk of death in that period five-fold.

I would add the caveat that perhaps it is not just the stress, but the way in which we react to that stress. Stress can be a positive motivator. As a powerful response for the body it can be turned to potentially productive outlets; for example if you are feeling under stress a visit to the gym can reduce stress and provide physiologic benefit. Meditation has been shown to be helpful both in short-term and long-term outcomes. When life hands me lemons, I immediately make a delicious citrus flavored Margarita. When life hands you stress make a grande size and realize whatever the stressors, don’t make it as serious as a heart attack.

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