Some would say that the past year or so has been something other than stressful. From illness, loneliness and job uncertainty to juggling and caring for children, we constantly plan and make plans according to the latest regulations.
It is therefore not surprising that ‘more people are now reporting burnout and chronic stress’, says Dr Nick Hooper, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of England. ‘It’s been a hell of a year.’
But how much should we worry about what this tense period of history is doing to us?
It is well known that stress can have very real, physical health consequences. And two new studies published in the same week shed light on how widespread these effects can be.
From illness, loneliness and job uncertainty, to juggling work and child care, we are constantly planning and making plans according to the latest regulations.
In a first, scientists at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in the US found that stress actually turns hair white – while reducing stress levels may be able to reverse the process.
The second, published in the journal Cardiovascular Research, suggested that high stress levels made it more likely that someone would develop ‘broken-heart syndrome’, or takotsubo, a form of heart disease that occurs after a severe emotional shock such as bereavement. Happens after. Now worryingly, job stress (a risk factor for heart attack and stroke) is rising at an alarming rate among working women, a Swiss study reported earlier this month.
Dr Chetna Kang, Consultant Psychiatrist at Nightingale Hospital in London, explains, ‘In general terms, stress is where a demand exceeds our resources and our perceived ability to cope with that demand.
This may sound worrying, considering that this feeling—of having too many plates swirling in the air or having too few hours a day—is a feeling we’re all familiar with.
And yet a certain amount of stress is normal, Dr. Hooper says. ‘We too easily fall into the trap of pathological stress, when in fact it is a normal part of the human experience,’ he says.
‘Some of the most important and wonderful things in life that we do are also stressful – for example, if you get married.’
Plus, our bodies are designed to deal with short bursts of stress.
Dr Robin Law, a senior lecturer in psychology, explains that our stress response system has evolved to deal with the stressors we have faced in our evolutionary past, such as a predator we need to get away from, explains Dr Robin Law, a senior lecturer in psychology. Explains Robin Law and the Stress Research Group at Psychological Sciences and the University of Westminster: ‘Once the threat subsides, it goes back to normal.’
Yet a certain amount of stress is normal, Dr. Hooper says. ‘We too easily fall into the trap of pathological stress, when in fact it is a normal part of the human experience,’ he says.
But there appears to be a tipping point; And too much stress, for too long, has been linked to ‘almost everything you can imagine’, Dr. Law says – from depression to low immunity and cancer.
This kind of chronic stress is rapidly increasing – and, according to some leading scientists, unexpectedly – being labeled as ‘burnout’.
So how does something stressful have a physical effect in the first place?
The body’s main stress-response system is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. It consists of two areas of the brain, the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, as well as the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys.
These communicate with each other to control the release of cortisol, which is sometimes called the ‘stress hormone’ because it is secreted more when we are faced with something stressful. (We also need it for functions like regulating blood pressure and blood sugar levels.)
In response to a stressful situation, the brain sends signals to the adrenal glands to secrete more cortisol into the bloodstream.
‘It penetrates cells throughout the body, promoting functions that help us avoid or ward off perceived danger,’ explains Dr. Law. For example, it elevates your heart rate and releases energy stores, as well as suppressing functions that are not immediately necessary, such as digestion.
In the short term, all of this is ‘really useful’, he says – it enables the body to run faster, concentrate harder, or be ready for a physical attack.
The problem in the modern world is that ‘most of the problems we face are chronic stressors that don’t go away – so things like money, work or family problems’, explains Dr.
‘As a result, a person maintains this stress response for a long time. And it is in constant exposure to cortisol which has a very negative impact on your physical and psychological health.’
This begins to damage the feedback loop of the stress-response system, making the brain less able to detect how much cortisol the body needs.
‘The stress-response system damages itself,’ explains Dr. Law. ‘There are two types of receptors for cortisol in cells – and the effect of cortisol depends on how much cortisol is bound to the two different types. There should be a balance between them.
If there is too much cortisol in the circulation, it upsets this balance that allows cells to function properly.
‘Additionally, the effect of cortisol on the receptor itself is toxic,’ he says. ‘So if you’ve maintained high levels of cortisol, it essentially stops the receptors from working properly.’
Normally, once you have the right level of cortisol, the brain gets a signal to shut down the entire system and stop secreting excess cortisol. “The problem is that once those receptors are no longer functioning properly, it’s no longer sensitive to that and you end up with high levels,” says Dr. Law.
But how do we know when normal, day-to-day stress has turned into something more unhealthy? According to Dr. Kang, there are indications that we…