Can Stress Trigger Diseases?

Stress is identified as the non-specific response of the body to any demands made upon it. Each day, in every walk of life, we encountered stress. Most people wish for a stress free life. However, such a task would be impossible to achieve. Stress is a part of our everyday lives. Unfortunately, stress doesn't just produce discomfort. Stress can cause diseases as well. If ignored, stress could lead to serious chronic illnesses. So what really happens when a person experiences chronic stress? 

Our body normally goes through various changes when is trying to deal with stress. Let’s examine the process of the body.  When we are experiencing stress in several parts of our body, whichever part is being affected sends a message to the brain by way of the nerves.  Then it passes throughout the reticular activating the system either from or to the limbic system or the thalamus.  The limbic system is like the store house of our emotions, to which the thalamus acts like a trigger or a switch, deciding what to do with the incoming signals sent by the body. Thus, activating the hypothalamus will in turn activate the endocrine system and the autonomic nervous system.   

Another way in which the brain responds a stressor is by activating a part of the brain referred as hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system (HPA system).  The HPA will activate the production and discharge of glucocorticolds i.e. steroid hormones, including the primary stress hormone cortisol.  This hormone is really important in marshaling systems so that the body can be dealing with stress more rapidly.  When the body deals with stress, it generates several byproducts.  If these byproducts of stress are not dealt with in a useful way, they result in physiological reactions or illness and diseases.   


Let’s consider some illnesses and diseases.  There are lots of diseases to which the mind makes the body susceptible.  These diseases are referred as psychosomatic diseases (psyche means mind; soma means body).  To make this concept clear, let’s give an example; Jenny is a 45 year old woman.  Her husband passed away, leaving her depressed.  Jenny's husband was a kind individual and Jenny felt it was not fair, and found it very difficult to deal with her husband's untimely death.  A sense of helplessness came over her.  It seemed as if loneliness was her only companion at this point; there were people who were not surprised at Jenny's death just one year after her husband passed away.  They officially termed it as death because of heart attack, but to Jenny's friends, it was known that Jenny died of a "broken heart". 


You might have met some people like Jenny yourself.  Those people who initially had little or no physical problems but died or felt chronically ill as a consequence of severe stress.  How lots of times we tell individuals "it's all in your head".  In Jenny's case, it was not all in her head. From time to time when we experience too much emotional stress it causes physical diseases, such as psychogenic diseases.  With psychogenic diseases, there is no invasion of disease producing viruses or micro organisms.  Instead, the mind changes the physiology in such a way that it breaks down. On the other hand, diseases occur when the mind makes the body vulnerable to several diseases causing microbes or natural degenerative processes.  This is referred as a somatogenic disease like cancer, or asthma, etc.  There could be a variety of diseases caused by stress. Let’s consider certain particular conditions.  A common disease caused by stress is Hypertension.  Hypertension, also frequently known as high blood pressure, is an excessive and harmful pressure of the blood against the arterial walls of the blood vessels.  If the blood generates too much pressure on the arterial walls, they could rupture.  When this happens, the blood that was intended to reach a special location will not reach its goal.  If the rupture takes place in the brain, it could cause a cerebral hemorrhage. Because blood pressure and the serum cholesterol level both increase during stress the relation between hypertension and stress has long been suspected.  Emotional stress is usually a major cause of hypertension.  Hypertension could be controlled by medication, but occasionally these drugs have some side effects.  The side effects may include poor habits like smoking and alcoholism, which could be harmful.  To cope with hypertension, alone with medication and enhancement in life style, a variety of stress management techniques like learning how to relax, perception and intervention, etc. are also essential. 

Apoplexy, usually known as stroke, is the lack of oxygen to the brain resulting from rupture or blockage of one of the arteries in the brain.  Depending on the site of rupture, it can have its causes like speech impairment, paralysis, or even death might occur.  Strokes are related to hypertension, diet and stress.  Another disease caused by stress is ulcers.  Ulcers are cuts or fissures in the walls of the stomach.  During chronic stress, norepinephrine secretion can cause the contraction of the capillaries in the stomach lining.  This, in turn results in the shutdown of mucosal production, which is the protective barrier for the lining in the stomach.  When the barrier in the wall of the stomach is lost, the hydrochloric acid breaks down the tissue and sometimes even reaches the blood vessel causing a bleeding ulcer.  However, it has been found that there are lots of additional reasons for ulcer. Still, stress can aggravate the conditions in the degenerative track to make ulcers more likely to occur.  It can also act as a catalyst in the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach. 

Another painful disease caused by stress is Rheumatoid Arthritis.  It is the swelling and inflammation in a variety of joints in the body which if constant in its development can be really painful.  A usual joint has a synovial membrane.  This membrane develops fluids that are used to lubricate the joints.  In Rheumatoid arthritis, the synovial membrane secretes excessive fluids.  These fluids can create a swelling around the joint.  If the development continues then these fluids must penetrate into the bone, as they have nowhere else to go in order to expand.  In the last stage it can harm the scar tissue by immobilizing the bone and it can even cause deformity. Sometimes rheumatoid arthritis is developed by hereditary factors which are known as rheumatoid factors.  When under chronic stress, it aggravates the process of this arthritis, particularly for individuals who are prone to it.  As seen above, if attention is not given to stress, it could end up having many negative consequences.  Cancer, backache, TMJ syndrome, asthma, hay fever, tension headaches, migraine headaches and coronary heart diseases, just to name a few, are some of these consequences. 

Healthy stress is necessary in order to properly direct every person’s life.  So try not to let life control you by taking you to the wrong direction.  Instead, take life to the positive direction where you would like it to go, in order to have a healthier life.