Working Wounded

If you're over-worked and over-stressed, odds are good you've got one (or more) of these stress-induced ailments

April, 2007

Stress is a funny thing. On one hand, humans thrive on it. The little bit of adrenaline caused by the stress preceding a tough sales pitch could be just the thing a salesperson needs to really wow his clients and close the deal. On the other hand, high levels of stress left unattended can literally kill you. Most businesspeople live somewhere in between these two extremes. They work around the clock, cater to their families and leave very little time, if any, for important activities that help counter stress, such as exercise, rest and a healthy diet.

The problem with this sort of chaotic lifestyle is that the effects of stress accumulate quietly over time, later manifesting themselves in very ugly ways. And we’re not just talking about the physical, external symptoms of stress, such as bags under the eyes, hair loss and weight gain. Stress is a predisposing factor for a great number of serious ailments and conditions, ranging from high blood pressure to acid reflux and headaches. The majority of stress-induced ailments are “psychosomatic,” meaning the illness affects the body (soma), because of one’s mind or spirit (psyche). It’s confusing stuff, we know. But we hope to help connect the dots between stress and some of the everyday ailments you may be living with.


When a body is stressed, it releases adrenaline (also known as epinephrine), along with a hormone called cortisol. A quick shot of adrenaline or cortisol into the blood stream can be useful in certain situations. But because these hormones increase blood pressure, sustained levels can lead to hypertension, or high blood pressure, which puts the body at a higher risk of heart attack or stroke than any other disease. Dr. Kalani Brady, Internal Medicine and Associate Professor at the University of Hawaii Department of Native Hawaiian Health, adds that people who are chronically stressed tend to load up on salty foods, putting them at an even greater risk of high blood pressure.


Adrenaline and cortisol also stimulate the production of gastric acid, a digestive stomach fluid. When one’s natural flow of gastric acid is upset, the body responds all sorts of ways, none of which are fun or pretty. Upper digestive track diseases commonly associated with stress include heartburn, ulcers and acid reflux. Lower digestive track disorders — which include abdominal pain, diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome — are equally uncomfortable.


Grinding or clenching one’s teeth during sleep, or bruxism, is another psychosomatic disorder. While it can’t be scientifically linked to stress, most doctors agree stress is a major contributor to the condition. Dr. Jason Ako says that of his patients who grind, those with high stress levels have much higher clenching patterns than those who don’t. “A lot of dreams are related to stressful events in real life, so as people dream, they tend to clench and grind away at night,” says Ako. Beyond the obvious shaving down of your teeth, prolonged grinding increases the gaps between your teeth, forcing your jaw to work harder to close your mouth. This can lead to a clicking or locking of the jaw, or worse, temporomanidbular joint disorder, better known as TMJ.


The jury’s still out on whether stress actually causes skin disorders, but most doctors agree it does trigger flare-ups of diseases such as eczema and seborrheic dermatitis. “Just like adrenaline and cortisol, there are other complex hormones and chemicals that fly around in the blood stream when a person is stressed,” says Dr. Brady. “These chemicals excite a reaction in persons with skin disorders. Think of a hive of bees beneath your skin. When you’re stressed, you’ve stirred up the hive, and the bees will sting your skin, usually resulting in rash or an outbreak.”


The data is scanty, but increasingly present, that when you’re under a lot of stress your immune system suffers. That’s because in periods of prolonged stress the immune system shifts from a reactionary “fight or flight” mode (in which it prompts the body to ready itself for harm or danger) to that of an overall weakened state. Imagine amping up for a boxing match — getting geared up, keeping your arms near your face and bouncing around the ring — and the fight never starts. Your body can’t sustain that level of intensity very long, and neither can your immune system. And once your immune system is down, you’re susceptible to every illness in the book.


During exercise, the body alternates the tensing and relaxing of muscles. When the body is stressed, muscles tense, but don’t relax, causing aches and irritating nerves. On top of that, many executives add extra pressure on their spines by sitting most of the day and burden their necks and shoulders every time they pick up the phone or reach for the mouse. When the muscles in the back of the neck swell, chronic headaches and migraines often follow.


Not everyone needs a full eight hours, but a decent night’s sleep is essential for proper functioning and good health. And stress is believed to be the biggest culprit of short-term insomnia. Just think back to the last time you had an important deadline to meet, or a speech to give. Odds are you didn’t sleep well the night before. Minimize your stress and get better rest.

These are just a handful of the many, many ailments associated with short-term and chronic stress. We hope our list motivates those of you who suffer from these and other stress-induced ailments. The good news is you don’t need to be a doctor to know how to mitigate stress. But just in case you need a refresher, here are a few quick tips on relieving stress so you can live a happier, healthier life:

EXERCISE REGULARLY. Remember, exercise releases tension in the muscles. A few hours a week, either outdoors or at your local gym, should do the trick.

RELAX. Whether you meditate, stretch or cozy up with a good book, it’s important to unwind the body and mind. Regardless of how busy you are, make time every day to do something relaxing.

SLEEP WELL. Shoot for at least six hours of sleep a night. But more important than the quantity of your sleep, is the quality. Avoid eating or alcohol before bed and establish a regular sleeping pattern.

EAT RIGHT. Avoid eating as a reaction to stress. Instead, concentrate on finding healthy alternatives and plan your meals ahead of time.

DON’T OVERCOMMIT. Balance key to stress prevention. But it’s difficult to balance if you’re always going out of your way for others. Figure out what’s realistic, then prioritize. If you’ve got too much on your plate, take something off.


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Jacy L. Youn