Stress is an integral part of everyone’s lives, whether it comes from work, school, financial issues, relationship problems, etc. Statistics show that an estimated 75% of Americans reported feelings of moderate to high levels of stress within the past month. Although most people are aware that stress can take a toll on sleep quality, cause headaches and increase the risk of depression, but studies have found more surprising effects stress can have on our health.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), stress is the “brain’s response to any demand.” Meaning, it is the brain’s way of reacting to particular situations or experiences. Not all stress is bad, however. Situations that make us feel pressured can motivate us to perform better. This is due to a “fight-or-flight” response, whereby the brain perceives a real threat and immediately releases hormones that influence us to protect ourselves from harm.
When this fight-or-flight response fires too frequently, problems occur. We usually experience this kind of ongoing stress when we find ourselves faced with constant threats. According to Stevan Hobfoll, PhD, the Judd and Marjorie Weinberg presidential professor and chair at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, IL, and member of the American Psychological Association (APA), “Stress is caused by the loss or threat of loss of the personal, social and material resources that are primary to us. So, threat to self, threat to self-esteem, threat to income, threat to employment and threat to our family or our health…”
The “Stress in America” Survey released by the APA in February, 2015 explored the attitudes and perceptions of the American population in regards to stress and their primary causes. 3,068 American adults completed the survey in August, 2014. The survey showed that the primary cause of stress among Americans is money, with 72% of participants reporting experiencing stress pertaining to finances within the past month. Of these, 22% reported feeling extremely stressed in the past month due to money worries.
The second most prevalent cause of stress among Americans was shown to be work. Third was the economy, followed by family responsibilities and personal health concerns. According to Norman B. Anderson, CEO and executive vice president of the APA, “Last year’s survey continues to reinforce the idea that we are living with a level of stress that we consider too high. All Americans, and particularly those groups that are most affected by stress—which include women, younger adults and those with lower incomes—need to address this issue sooner than later in order to better their health and well-being.”
Professor Hobfoll says that stress is highly related to all major aspects of disease. Although stress is rarely the foundational cause of disease, it interacts with one’s genetics and state of the body in ways that hasten the onset of disease.
The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that stress can negatively influence the health of the heart. Common coping mechanisms to alleviate stress, such as excessive alcohol consumption and smoking, can raise one’s risk of obesity and hypertension, which can result in poor heart health. A study conducted in November 2014 reports that stress can also decrease the flow of blood to the heart, especially for women.