How Stress Affects Health

The relationship between ‘stress’ and the consequences it has on health, as encouraged much research and debate. Of course, perhaps before we can provide a considered assessment, it is initially important that one would need a definition as a basic premise for discussion. Lazarus and Folkman (1984) describes stress as ‘the negative emotional and physiological process that occurs as individuals try to deal with emotional and physiological process that occurs as individuals try to deal with emotional circumstances that disrupt or threaten to disrupt their daily functioning.

There are several prevalent examples of the possibility that stress can influence an individuals’ health status- however, it is essential that evidence is critically assessed in order to formulate a worthwhile debate on whether stress, and to what degree, can affect health and wellbeing. Early research into stress, researchers often used animals such as monkeys and rats. For instance, Brady etal. (1958) in their famous ‘executive monkey’ provides a competent example of this.

Monkeys received electric footshocks for 20-second intervals every six hours at a time, with six hours rest in-between. Shocks were not signalled. Monkeys were run in pairs with one in each pair – the executive- able to press the lever to postpone the shock for 20 seconds. The other monkey could not press the lever, but received any footshocks ( a yoked control). On this type of schedule not all shocks can be avoided, and after many sessions, Brady and his colleagues found that many of the executives died of gastric ulceration.

They concluded that the shocks themselves were not that stressful as the yoked controls were healthy, but it was the added stress of trying to avoid the shocks that fatally stressed the executives. Admittedly, this is a somewhat simplistic and experimentally- controlled example of the affect of stress on the health of animals. However, it does illustrate an inherent relationship between high stress levels and ill-health. Of course, human beings are more complex animals with different motivations, needs and anxieties

Stress, at its basic level, involves a transaction between people and their environment. Environmental circumstances (such as exams or accidents) that cause people to make adjustments are called ‘stressors’. ‘Stress reactions’ are the physical, psychological and behavioural responses (such as nervousness, nausea, and fatigue) that people display in the face of stressors. Most of the research into stress has focused on the supposed link with anxiety, depression and physical illness such as heart disease raised blood pressure, gastric ulcers and psychosomatic illness.

The latter include asthma, migraine headaches, eczema and digestive problems (‘psyche’ meaning mind and ‘some’ meaning body; hence, bodily ions produced or intensified by the process in the mind. Psychological approaches to the study of health sciences have endeavoured to produce some interesting evidence. Holmes and rache (1967) developed a ‘stress scale’ after studying five thousand hospital patients. They noticed that significant life events often seemed to cluster in the months preceding the illness or injury.

A panel of judges were used to produce ratings of how much change would lead to, and a rank order emerged with ‘death of spouse’ at the top ( value 100 points) and ‘ Christmas’ and ‘minor violations of the law’ at the bottom. Holmes and rache equated life change with stress, and predicted that high levels of life change (calculated by adding by simply adding up the values) over a 12 month period would lead to an increased chance of health breakdown over the following two years; a score of over 300 was seen as critical.

Studies shown some small but significant correlation’s between high scores and ill health, although some results were negative There are several problems that are obvious in the study. For instance, the categorisation/ severity of life events are subjective and arbitrary. A universal scale is perhaps impossible. An illustration of this would be that an individual may find Christmas a big emotional strain, or, marital separation a relief rather than a ‘life changing’ stressor.

Comparatively, psychologists such as Friedman and Rosenman( 1974) studied personalities of patients suffering from coronary heart disease, and proposed that a particular type of personality is particularly vulnerable to this stress – related illness. This personality was characterised by constant time pressure, doing several tasks at once, being intensely competitive at work. This personality type has become known as type A. Subsequent research that has been found that heart disease and type A personalities do indicate a correlation, but it is not a particularly strong one.

Consequently, the research can not be entirely embraced. Perhaps fundamentally, the theory does not account for the type A personalities that survive happily despite their inherently ‘risky’ lifestyle and personality. Most importantly, psychological approaches although they provide an interesting insight into life stressors, it fails to entirely bolster the notion that stress and ill-health are inherently inter-linked. Perhaps, it is necessary to pay attention to biological reactions to stressors. For instance, A medic, while training to become a doctor, devised a theory known as the general adaptation syndrome.

Selye, observes patients seemed to observe that patients seemed to experience the same physiological reactions regardless to the illness. It mainly involves the largely automatic nervous system (ANS) and the endocrine system, and it has definite stages: Alarm: The sympathetic branch of the ANS is activated increasing heart-rate and blood pressure, directing blood flow to the muscles, and releasing adrenaline and non-adrenaline from the adrenal medulla. The hormones maintain and intensify sympathetic activity. Exhaustion: eventually the body’s defence system become exhausted.

Although heart-rate and blood pressure may return to normal, blood levels of adrenal hormones are still high and responses to even mild additional stressors become high and responses to even mild additional stressors become exaggerated. At this stage, psychosomatic disorders such as heart disease, gastric ulcers, permanently raised blood pressure and digestive problems can occur. What Selye has managed to identify in his research was a medically based assessment of the relationship between stress and how it can trigger ill health. His research is reliable and is universal to human beings.

This is what is fundamentally is problematic with the psychological theories they could be accused of being un-reliable, and at times, subjective. The medical approach to stress identifies the affect that stress has on the immune system. In somewhat simplistic terms, the components of the immune system kill or inactivate foreign or harmful substances in the body such as viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells. If the immune system is impaired- by stressors- individuals are left vulnerable to colds, mononucleosis, and many more infectious diseases.

An interpretation of stress and ill health has been applied by both psychology and physiology. What is generally accepted is that stress can be a catalyst in facilitating ill health. However, it appears the physiology provides medically sound account of the body’s adaptation to the affect of stressors. Paradoxically, some of the psychological approaches have methodological problems with affect the value of the results. The debate, despite some limitations in research, can simply identify that stress unequivocally affects health and wellbeing.

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