How Stress Causes Disorders

How Stress Causes Disorders

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

In the 1930s, Hans Selye, widely regarded as father of the modern theory of stress management, started injecting rats in order to observe how ovarian extract affected the body. But there was one problem. Selye was brand new to the field and somewhat sloppy in the business of rat management. In order to inject the rats, every morning he would chase them, miss them, drop them, and rattle his broom to get them from under the sink or from the nooks and crannies of his lab.

After several months of this hectic rat chasing, Selye sat down to examine them and discovered that the rats had peptic ulcers, greatly enlarged adrenal glands, and shrunken immune tissues. He would have concluded that these changes were caused by the ovarian extract, but for one problem. The problem was that he also included a control group of rats for this study. He injected the control group rats with a saline solution instead of ovarian extract. These rats were also subjected to Selye's rather traumatic rat chase.

Lo and behold, the control group also had had peptic ulcers, greatly enlarged adrenal glands and shrunken tissues. Selye recognized that these changes were probably the result of his daily pursuit of these poor rats. And thus, the physiological understanding of stress response began. Selye discovered what has proven to be the tip of the iceberg of understanding stress-related disorders.

Human beings have an incredibly efficient system to respond to physical danger during a short-lived emergency. However, disastrous results can occur if this system remains activated for long periods when there is no enemy to fight with or flee from. Our bodies react to a psychological or social threat, as if it were a life-threatening emergency.

Stress related diseases develop when we too frequently evoke the stress response and keep it turned on for weeks and months, and in some cases forever, reacting to current problems at work or home or focusing too much on disturbing memories from the past.

The ability to think about and anticipate events before they happen has helped humanity to survive and prosper. But, the same abilities cause us grief. Animals activate the "fight-flight" response when confronted by physical danger, such as an approaching predator. Human beings can evoke the same physiological response just by thinking about or anticipating such stressful events as their child's grades, mortgage payment, public speaking or confrontation with a boss.

While fleeing from a tiger, "Jack's" blood pressure may rise to 180 or 200 over 130 or 140, but his blood pressure may also rise to the same levels when he is arguing with his wife or when upset with his kid for getting into trouble at school.

Let's take this scenario further. "Jack" and his wife "Jill" constantly fight. As long as they are in the house, they either fight or stay upset about the last fight they had. Let's say that their blood pressure stays 180 over 140 for several hours a day, while they are either fighting or mentally reacting to previous fights or on-going problems they have with each other.

There is another problem which is little known or discussed: Stress-induced high blood pressure, though periodic, can cause more harm than physically caused permanent high blood pressure. Why? Because, the stress induced high blood pressure is more likely to cause formation of plaque in your blood vessels.

Chronic stress response causes harm in two ways: (1) Wasteful usage of the body's emergency resources and (2) Blockage/inhibition of its normal functions.

The fact that stress causes harm by excessive and unnecessary usage of energy and resources is rather widely known. But less recognized is the fact that stress causes harm by blocking the body's healthy and recuperative functions.

Perhaps an example may be helpful. Say that Jack and Jane spend too much money on some luxury item and then lack the money to make needed repairs to the sofa or the basement wall. Because Jack and Jane often overspend their valuable resources on unnecessary chronic and constant stress response, it may hamper their systems ability to repair and heal their bones and tissues. Their digestive processes may frequently suspend their normal activities or may assume abnormal ones.

After all, in a life-threatening emergency, maintenance jobs can hardly be treated as the priority. For the same reason, during the fight-flight response, the menstruation cycle can be disrupted or cease prematurely; the sperm count and testosterone levels may drop significantly. These "luxuries" are hardly important during a "life-saving operation."

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Copyright 2001, Mind Publications 


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