When “good” stress GOES BAD
We no longer live in a world of the occasional threat. Our “lions”—24/7 access to information, long work hours, traffic jams, tough marriages, errant kids—are everywhere. But even seemingly innocuous aspects of our lives are stressors, says Brad Lichtenstein, N.D., a naturopathic physician and assistant professor at Bastyr University in Seattle. “Stress is any force exerted on the mind and body,” Lichtenstein explains. “So, by definition even gravity is stress, exercise is stress, eating is stress.” Unfortunately, our bodies haven’t caught up with modernity, and they are paying a scary price for the fairly constant fight-or-flight response our frenetic lives seem to require.
Candance Reaves, 55, a writer in Seymour, Tenn., spent 10 years caring for her dying mother. After her mother’s death two years ago, Reaves developed depression, anxiety, and a constant pain in her shoulders and neck. “That was where the stress manifested itself after my mother died,” she says. “It was the culmination of the stress that I felt being pulled one way or the other over 10 years. I didn’t have a life.” What Reaves endured—and what most of us experience to varying degrees—was unremitting stress, a modern phenomenon that takes a very different toll on our bodies than a quick burst of stress that resolves within minutes. The problem with a chronic stress response is that you produce so much cortisol that your adrenal glands—the factories that produce and regulate our stress hormones—poop out, says Lichtenstein. The result? Constant fatigue, emotional chaos and decreased immunity. In fact, a number of studies have shown that stress has a direct effect on the immune system. For example, research conducted at Ohio State University in 2008 found that older caregivers of family members with dementia did not respond well to vaccines, had less defense against viruses as well as more inflammation and accelerated aging of their cells compared with adults who were not caregivers.
A similar 2004 University of California, San Francisco, study of middleaged mothers looked at their telomeres, DNA proteins that are markers of biological aging. Thirty-nine moms were caring for an ill child and 19 for a well one. The chronically stressed mothers with sick kids had shorter telomeres than the moms of healthy children; researchers surmised this was about a decade’s difference in terms of aging. And the effect of chronic stress on the immune system is just the start. “Adrenaline increases blood pressure and damages your heart, increasing your risk of stroke,” says Maté. “Cortisol gives you ulcers and puts fat on your body in a way that promotes heart disease and diabetes.” In fact, Maté believes that chronic stress plays some part in all chronic illnesses. The psychological ravages are just as brutal. As Judith Orloff notes, long-term stress depletes the body of serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter: “That makes you depressed and cloudy, so you can’t concentrate. With chronic adrenaline, you’re also hyper and more irritable. Everything becomes a big deal because it’s hard not to sweat the small stuff.”
Leslie Levine, 51, a writer and mother of two in Northbrook, Ill., knows all too well the dangers of sweating the small stuff, as she stresses over whether to take storebought or homemade cookies to a lake-side picnic. “I wish I was one of those mothers who wouldn’t think twice about buying the cookies at Costco. But me, I think, ‘Do I take the cookies out and wrap them in aluminum foil so it looks like I made them?’ ” Such indecision doesn’t come from wimpy genes. “It’s because sometimes I have to be three places at once,” says Levine. “I often find myself wondering, ‘What do I have to do today so that at 5 o’clock when my kids get home, I’m not a bitch on wheels?’ ”