The Stress Health Connection
By Farzana Rahman
‘Stress is causing some of the biggest public health crises of the 21st century.’
I was at a meeting about health policy talking to a leading psychiatrist and health leader. She said it in a matter of fact way – the truth and facts speak for themselves. In 2015/16 stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill heath in the UK.
It seemed obvious once she said it, but until then I had never really connected the dots. Did I come into contact with people who talked about how stressed they were? Of course, it’s the common thread that bonds all work colleagues – without it, after work drinks would be awkward, silent gatherings. Did I know that stress affected health? Of course - nearly every branch of medicine has disease processes that are caused or exacerbated by stress. In fact, stress is such a common term in our everyday vernacular that it has two emojis (happiness, sadness and anger only have one).
And yet I had never quite put two and two together (which seemed absurd when I really thought about it). Because stress can affect anyone of any age and has proven links to heart disease, insomnia and poor immunity.
Five Studies that Show Stress Affects Your Health
- One study found that stress-inducing activities such as exams and public speaking led to impaired immunity. Immunity was reduced due to a reduction in the number of certain white blood cells, which help maintain immunity.
- Work stress has been associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. One study, which looked at male white-collar workers, found that work related stress led to an increase in systolic blood pressure and heart rate during and after work. These factors can contribute to cardiovascular disease.
- A study of 3079 middle-aged working-men found that work related stress was directly related to sleep disorders including insomnia, sleep deprivation and daytime fatigue. Interestingly the study concluded that the effect of work stress on sleep was independent of working hours and lifestyle.
- It has been proposed that chronic stress contributes to obesity by increasing food intake and increasing abdominal fat deposits. This is through the effect and interactions of chronic stress with adrenal glucocorticoids (the stress hormones produced by organs that lie on top of the kidneys)
So the evidence shows that stress is bad for our health, but is this actually news to most of us? I would say yes. Whilst almost everyone knows that stress is not good, I would venture that most of us are not aware of the specific effects that prolonged stress can have. Knowing this information can help us to make better choices regarding stress management and not feel guilty doing so.