If you're living with a chronic illness, you're in the right place.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Stress Science

3:29 PM Posted by Tiffany Taft , ,
Ah, stress.  We Americans are a stressed society, aren't we?  I personally avoid watching any sort of TV news and stick with online sources as to limit my exposure to the insanity of the world to controlled doses.  Needless to say it's not surprising that researchers have spent, and continue to spend, a considerable amount of time and money understanding the good, the bad, and the ugly of stress.  Here are some recent findings that I thought would be of interest to our readers - because living with a chronic illness not only adds a layer of stress to life but simultaneously increases our susceptibility to sickness (e.g. flare ups of said illness) during periods of stress.

On with the science!
First up, researchers at Princeton University found that mice who exercised regularly showed improved neurological response to stressors.  Specifically, proteins that get released in a part of our brain called the ventral hippocampus and are implicated in increasing anxiety showed up less in the mice who exercised compared to those who were sedentary.  As an added bonus, exercise put the brakes on circuitry in the brain that leads to feeling anxious giving the negative effects of stress a double-smackdown.

Takeaway:  regular workouts can make you more resilient under stress at the neurological level.

Don't worry, you're getting somewhere.

Next, a study from the University of Southern California showed that when stressed, we're more likely to stick to old habits - both good and bad.  People who, in general, had poorer eating or exercise habits tended to continue to eat poorly and be sedentary during stressful times (e.g. people who ate donuts for breakfast ate even more junk food while watching a lot more TV) while people who were healthier upped the healthy  habits under stress (e.g. worked out more).

Takeaway:  establish healthy habits now, especially during lower stress periods, so when the heat is on you're more likely to go the healthy route.

Finally, our friends across the pond in the UK, France and Finland followed over 7,000 people for 18+ years after they answered a series of questions about what things they believed most severely affected their health; the things people rated included smoking, drinking alcohol, diet, exercise habits, and stress.  Those who rated that their health had been affected "a lot" or "extremely" by stress had more than 2 times the risk of having a heart attack or dying from one than those who said stress did not affect their health.

Takeaway:   Listen to your gut and pay attention to how you think about stress, including how it may be affecting your health.  Not everyone perceives it the same way, but if you think its bad - it probably is.

Channel your inner Yoda.
So, how's your stress lately?  Keep in mind that it's the chronic day-to-day hassles that can have the most wear and tear on our bodies, not the big life events.  We don't have to feel like we're at the end of our rope, or are a pot about to boil over, to be experiencing stress.  If you are stressed, what are you doing to help?  Are there some changes you can make to help you cope?

Dr. T.