Work Stress Can Take Toll On The Body

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Work stress, like any other stress, can break down the body's ability to resist and recover from an illness, even if that body belongs to a "stress expert."

Psychologist Raymond Fowler, Chief Executive Officer of the American Psychological Association is a stress expert. He is health conscious and works hard to stay healthy by exercising, eating nutritiously and managing work stress judiciously. He routinely takes annual physical examinations which bring excellent reports. He was feeling invulnerable to stress until the last spring.

It all began to change when the Association went through a particularly difficult period. As the crisis continued month after month, the stress began to take its toll on his body. In Dr. Fowler's own words, "After several years of not having as much as a cold, I suddenly began coming down with everything that was going around." In the following months, he caught various viruses.

Dr. Fowler went for a thorough physical examination. The reports were not good. His physician commented that the prolonged stress had compromised his immune function. Fowler talking about it in the current APA Monitor writes, "My blood pressure, which had always been excellent, was elevated. My heart, which had functioned without complaint through 15 marathons, had begun to develop atypical rhythm and erratic timing." Fowler is taking some time off to relax and replenish himself. He is glad that his condition is reversible and that he was alerted to it before medical complications could result in serious harm.

During a prolonged and extremely stressful period, new medical problems often surface or old ones that were lying dormant flare up. Not everyone recognizes the link between stress and physical illnesses. Some take the occurrence of medical problems during a stressful period as sheer coincidence or just "bad luck" in which "everything started falling apart at the same time." Such bad luck is brought by stress itself and involves no such thing as coincidence. Stress-related diseases are real and can be devastating.

People with normal blood-pressure are seen to register an increase of as much as 100 points during prolonged and extreme work related stress. Once the critical situation is resolved, their blood pressure comes down to the normal. Unfortunately, it doesn't get completely normal in every case. These are the people I call "blood responders." They respond to significant stress with an elevated blood pressure. When frustrated or aggravated, their face, neck and chest immediately become red. If the stress in their life goes on for a long time, their blood pressure may stay elevated, sometimes, requiring blood pressure medication.

Here are other major types of stress responders: muscle responders; skin responders; gut responders and heart responders. Muscle responders tighten their muscles to form a hard shell around them. It is like they are raising their body as a shield to protect themselves or wearing armor to fight with the "enemy," the source of impending danger. Their muscles stay sore all the time and at some point they develop headaches, stiff necks, or back aches. Skin responders are more likely to profusely sweat, itch or break out into hives.

There is some public awareness regarding the gut response to stress. Most people who respond in this way will tell you that they have a nervous stomach. What is not so commonly known is the response of the heart to emotional stress. Heart is an emotional organ just as the gut is. A heart disease doesn't always begin with the arteries, it may begin with prolonged grief, emotional wounds of the past or other emotional complications.

Dr. Stephen Sinatra, a cardiologist at the New England Heart Center, says that the role of emotions such as grief and anger is often overlooked in heart disease. Sinatra observes that more than 50 percent of all coronary heart disease afflicts people who have no known major physical risk factors. They don't smoke, they are not hypertensive, don't have a significant family history and yet they develop heart disease. Could emotions be playing a part in it? It is plausible.

In his book Heart Break and Heart Disease, Sinatra describes how rigidity in the chest wall, throat and pelvis develops when negative emotions are held tight causing rapid and shallow breathing which in turn results into reduced oxygen to all organs including the heart.

According to a recent work stress survey, 22 % of employees were feeling "extreme stress" at work. Sixteen percent said that they were so angry that they wanted to hit a co-worker. They felt they were at a "breaking point." Some were frustrated enough to do such things as hit their head against the wall, kick the desk or throw something across the room. This is serious stuff. Work stress is something to be reckoned with. Give your co-worker a cause to smile and a kind word to take home.

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Copyright 2000, Mind Publications 


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