The link between stress and illness
You know what stress is, don’t you? I imagine that if I were to ask you what your definition of stress was, you might say “it’s a feeling”, or “what happens when I’m under great pressure”. Just like everyone has a different definition of ‘love’ and ‘happiness’, the same can be said about ‘stress’. We each define it based on our own personal experience of it.
Whatever your definition of stress, the reality is we all experience it at varying degrees throughout our lives. Sometimes we experience it for short periods of time (acute stress) and sometimes we find ourselves stressed for long periods of time (chronic stress). It’s not uncommon these days to hear someone say “I’m stressed”. In fact, you’d probably be more surprised if someone commented to you, “I’m completely stress-free.”
Richard Carlson, psychotherapist and author of the famous book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and it’s all Small Stuff (1997), once said, “Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness.”
High levels of stress can negatively affect our:
- Mental state
- Physical body
- Ability to perform
- Capacity to cope with day-to-day activities
According to the results of a recent survey published by the Australian Psychological Society (APS), our perception of wellbeing is linked to our stress levels. This means the higher our stress, the lower our sense of wellbeing is. Mentally, when we’re stressed, we don’t cope well with the pressures in our life. On a biological level, stress can lead to a condition called Adrenal Insufficiency (AKA Adrenal Fatigue), which has a range of symptoms such as fatigue, food cravings, sluggishness, low tolerance to stress and dependence on stimulants. And on a cellular level other damage to our body may be happening, completely out of our awareness.
The Stress Response
Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance in some way. When you sense danger – whether it’s real, perceived or imagined – the body’s natural defences kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, or the stress response.
The stress response is the body’s way of trying to protect you. You may choose to fight against the threat, which could take the form of standing your ground, defending your position, attack, dig your heels in or simply persevere. Or you may choose to take flight, by giving way, retreating, discarding, removing yourself, giving up or simply moving on.
When working properly, the stress response helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life by giving you extra speed and strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.
The stress response also helps you rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather be watching TV. This is what’s called acute stress, and short-term acute stress can actually boost the immune system.
But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to your health, your mood, your productivity, your relationships, and your quality of life. This is known as chronic stress. This suppresses the immune system, putting us at risk of infection, restricts blood flow, increases risk for diabetes, increases stomach acid concentration (leading to ulcers), leads to plaque build-up in the arteries (atherosclerosis) and increases the likelihood that a person will develop a mental health disorder.
Stress and Illness
The treatment of illness, particularly chronic illness, is not just about the relief of symptoms or the monitoring of its physical course. Illness is a physical and psychological stressor. There are social, psychological, emotional, financial, spiritual and career impacts, from the earliest stages to the final outcome, whether it is recovery, remission, or death.
Psychological stress is commonly associated with chronic illness. People who can manage stress well are shown to be more resilient, experience fewer or less severe symptoms, often recover quicker, and experience a higher quality of life. Therefore, the treatment of illness is not just about relieving symptoms, it is also about addressing the psychological impact of illness. It can lead to depression, anxiety disorders, which bring with them further challenges and loss of function.
Thus, therapies that work with the mind-body connection are gaining momentum in both research and clinical fields within conventional medicine and psychology. Mind-body therapies (MBT) address the two sides of stress and its link to illness, as a causative factor and a resultant factor.
What are the signs and symptoms of stress you recognise from your own experience?
 Casey, L. (2012), Stress and wellbeing in Australia in 2012: A state-of-the-nation survey, The Australian Psychological Society Ltd, Melbourne VIC
 Henke, M (2013), Cut Down Work Stress: 7 Strategies to Reduce Stress and Feel a Whole Lot Better, Amazon for Kindle
 Salleh, M.R. (2008), Life Event, Stress and Illness. Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, Vol. 15(4), 9-18