The Psychological Effects of Stress

psychology of stressWhen we experiences stress, our brain responds by releasing a variety of chemicals to the blood. This provides a biochemical boost that enables us to respond to the source of stress. If stress and the subsequent biochemical reaction continues unabated, the body becomes prone to a variety of problems, such as depression, anxiety, stroke, and coronary heart disease. This type of physiological reaction to stress is known as General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). GAS was first described by Haas Selye in 1936.

There are three stages to GAS. The first stage of GAS contains the alarm reaction where the body releases adrenaline and a variety of other psychological mechanisms to combat the stress and to stay in control. This is well-known as the “fight or flight response.” In this stage, muscles tense, the heart beats faster, breathing and perspiration increases, and pupils dilate. This physiological reaction occurs as a means of protection. Once the source of stress is gone, the body returns to a normal state.

When the cause for the stress is not removed, GAS moves to the second stage called resistance or adaptation. In this stage, the body responds by increasing blood sugar, raising blood pressure, and secreting hormones called corticosteroids via the adrenal cortex. If stress is not reduced and this process is uninterrupted, this phase eventually leads to disease. If the adaptation phase continues for prolonged periods of time without periods of relaxation and rest to counterbalance the stress response, sufferers become prone to fatigue, concentration lapses, irritability, and lethargy.

The third stage of GAS is called exhaustion. As the name of this stage implies, the body has run out of energy reserves. The body experiences adrenal exhaustion, also referred to as the adrenal maladaptation syndrome, or hyperadaptosis. As blood sugar levels decrease and adrenals become depleted, stress tolerance decreases leading to progressive mental and physical deterioration, exhaustion, illness, and collapse.

Adrenal maladaptation syndrome may cause a variety of symptoms, depending on which organ system is the weakest. Some of the most common symptoms are:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Poor memory
  • Severe PMS
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Carbohydrate craving
  • Allergies (hay fever, asthma)
  • Headache
  • Alcohol intolerance
  • Muscular pain and tenderness
  • Joint pains and tenderness (arthritis)
  • Palpitations
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Alternating diarrhea and constipation
  • Obesity
  • Poor wound healing
  • Glucose intolerance
  • Moon face (swelling and roundness of the face)
  • Purple striae (skin condition like stretch marks)
  • Loss of bone density

Increased cortisol production also interferes with serotonin activity, further adding to the depressive effect. Continually high cortisol levels lead to suppression of the immune system, making the body more susceptible to everything from a common cold to cancer.

Stress Accelerates Aging

Scientists have identified the mechanism between stress and aging, a finding that helps to explain why intense, long-term emotional strain can make people grow old before their time. Researchers at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco found that chronic stress hastens the shriveling of the tips of telomeres, the bundles of genes inside cells, which shortens their life span and speeds the body’s deterioration.

The results of the study which involved 58 women, ages 20 to 50, all of whom were mothers of either a chronically ill child or a healthy child, revealed that stress accelerated cellular aging. The most critical component of stress in the care-giving process was the duration. The more years of care giving, the shorter the length of the telomeres, the lower the telomerase activity, and the greater the oxidative stress. Telomerase is an enzyme that provides stability to chromosomes in the body.

Researchers at the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School discovered that stress from mood disorders like depression and anxiety are associated with accelerated aging. The study looked at 44 individuals with chronic mood disorders and discovered that they all showed signs of accelerated telomere shortening. The researchers noted that accelerated telomere shortening may reflect stress-related oxidative damage to cells and accelerated aging, and that severe psychosocial stress is strongly associated with telomere shortening.

Getting Help For Stress

If a person is exposed to high levels of stress for a continued period of time or if problems develop from stress that interfere with daily living, it can help to seek out to a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychotherapist. Studies have shown that chronic stress can be successfully treated. Common interventions include lifestyle and behavior change, psychotherapy, and in extreme cases, medication may be appropriate. Psychotherapy helps by supporting a healthy lifestyle and teaches effective stress management.

Randi Fredricks, Ph.D.

References

Anderson, N.B. & Anderson, P.E. (2003). Emotional Longevity: what really determines how long you live. New York: Viking.

Epel ES, Blackburn EH, Lin J, Dhabhar FS, Adler NE, Morrow JD, Cawthon RM. (2004). Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA Dec 7;101(49): 17312–5.

Goldman, Robert. (1999). Brain Fitness: Anti-Aging to Fight Alzheimer’s Disease, Supercharge Your Memory, Sharpen Your Intelligence, De-Stress Your Mind, Control Mood Swings, and Much More. New York: Main Street Books.

Simon NM, Smoller JW, McNamara KL, Maser RS, Zalta AK, Pollack MH, Nierenberg AA, Fava M, Wong KK. (2006). Telomere shortening and mood disorders: preliminary support for a chronic stress model of accelerated aging. Biol Psychiatry Sep 1;60(5): 432–5.

Tintera JW. (1955). The hypoadrenal state and its management. New York State Journal of Medicine Jul;55(13): 1–35.