We know that Stress can produce stress symptoms both physiological and psychological. It can also cause diseases such as heart disease, strokes, gastric ulcers to name a few. In fact, the field of psychosomatic medicine is filled with all kinds of ailments to which stress contribute by causing it or else aggravating it. This includes asthma, dermatitis, ulcerative colitis, headaches, and so on.
Of course, most sufferers of the above conditions while experiencing stress at the same time did not quite connect the stress they are experiencing with the medical condition they are suffering from unless told by their medical provider.
Indeed, stress does cause all the above and more. So obviously if stress is able to give us all these medical ailments, it must do so through some physiological pathways that ultimately bring about the disease.
Below is an excerpt from my book “Conquering Stress: Make it Fun!” which highlights some of the physiological changes that give rise to symptoms and eventually diseases. It is not possible to detail all the physiological changes caused by stress as they are too numerous and too intricate for us to describe in a short article. Highlighted are a few of the more important ones.
“Some Key Biological Markers”
“Stress is associated with so much ill effects in our body that I think a review of this topic is essential. The biochemical and physiological effects of stress is wide ranging as the above description above indicates. And having summarized some of the key physiological changes in respond to stress, I shall give a very short account of important biological changes not covered by the above account. To be sure, this short account is neither representative nor comprehensive, but it does highlight to you the issues of importance, I would have thought.
Telomere is an important part of chromosomes. It is the cap that protects both ends of a chromosome from damage. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter, and an enzyme called telomerase is able to lengthen it. When a telomere is shorten excessively to the point of insignificance, the cell dies or becomes pro-inflammatory. This is what constitutes aging with all the attendant health risks. To be healthy, we need longer telomeres to enhance the integrity of our chromosomes.
It has been known for some time that the biggest risk to telomeres diminishing are chronological aging and genetics. Lately, it has been shown that stress is one of the most consistent predictors of shortened telomere length.25 Shortened telomere is associated with cellular aging and risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Conversely, it has been shown that if we engage in happy and meaningful (therefore, non-stressful) activities such as singing, art, exercise, and meaningful conversation, telomeres increased in length.
BDNF stands for brain-derived neurotrophic factor, one of a whole series of growth factors that promote the survival of neurons, or nerve cells. Specifically, BDNF plays an important role in the growth, maturation, and maintenance of nerve cells. Under conditions of excessive and chronic stress, BDNF gets depleted with the result that nerve cells began to shrink in volume and dies off, leading to a reduction of brain nuclei especially in the hippocampus.26 This reduction in brain volume is the anatomical correlate of symptoms we have reviewed earlier, viz. difficulties in memory and concentration and similar cognitive symptoms.
The important truth to realize is this: while stress can have deleterious effects on BDNF and thus our cognitive functioning, the reverse is true as well. Any therapeutic technique, be it medication, psychological manipulation, or physiological change induced by physical activity such as exercise, can reverse the fall in BDNF level and thus all the cognitive deficits associated with it. Herein lies the hope in managing and regulating our stress levels.
C-reactive protein (CRP) is a protein synthesised in the liver in response to inflammation. It is thus a marker for inflammation. Its presence means trouble as a high level of CRP can indicate inflammation in the coronary arteries and therefore at risk of a heart attack.27
But it should be noted that high CRP is rather non-specific and can mean that you are at risk for a wide range of infections, such as osteomyelitis, autoimmune conditions as rheumatoid arthritis, conditions similar to heart attacks such as strokes, as well as various cancers. It is thus a sign of impending ill health.
This fact is important: Stress yourself unnecessarily, and you are piling up a debt that will have to be repaid as ill health in the future. To keep this debt short is the goal whatever we do, be we competing or achieving excellence in our productive work, is certainly ideal for all those who are still in the competitive race.
The short account indicates that you are well advised to take care to reduce your stress levels. High persistent stress levels will cause your telomeres to be shortened, your BDNF in your brain to be reduced, and your CRP levels elevated. In practical terms, this means that your life will be shorter, and you are in danger of functioning poorly; and worse still, you are at risk of many physical illness and disabilities. To manage your stress and to live meaningful and purposeful life is just the reverse of that. Any reason still for not doing something about your stress levels?”
As hinted in this short excerpt, there are more details to the physiological and biochemical changes as a result of stress described in the pages of my book. If you are interested, you should certainly get hold of the book for the fuller account.
On the other hand if you like to take action on the above information, it is recommended that you should sign up for the next run of my workshop entitled “Stress, Mindfulness and Resilience” which tells you the course of action you should take to insulate yourself against stress especially the traumatic stress seen in the current COVID-19 Pandemic. There is so much you can do for yourself but only you alone can do it.