Reaching boiling point?
We’ve all suffered a touch of burnout, all experienced a mental wobble or two – losing a job, divorce, family illness, bereavement – any of these can age the brain by up to four years! Chronic stress is now being associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease, with the prolonged activation of the normal stress response proven to be physically damaging to the brain.
Cliché or not, when you’re exposed to an acute stressful situation, as well as your heart rate and blood pressure increasing, we see other changes that make you more likely to have a heart attack or stroke. Your blood will clot more quickly and water flows out of the vessels into the surrounding tissues, making the blood stickier and more concentrated. This is thanks to the stress hormones changing the texture of the epithelial lining of your blood vessels. They become narrower because of the constriction that the stress response causes, together with other elements in the blood causing ruptures, as immune messages are released around the body. All these factors combine to increase the risk of a clot getting stuck somewhere and blocking a blood vessel.
A short-term trigger, caused by a stressful event, can lead to problems longer term. Studies have shown that football fans are more prone to heart attacks when they watch their team lose!! If you have strong levels of background stress as the norm, coupled with existing narrow arteries, you’re obviously going to be more susceptible.
You might think the immune system is removed from the stress response, but stress can make you more likely to contract an infectious disease. It could be anything from a cold to something more sinister. You need to be exposed to an infection in the first place, but your chances of fighting it off are poorer, as stress lowers your immune system’s defences. Staying as well as possible is the key – a healthy diet, being physically active and getting enough sleep will help regulate your hormone levels and enhance the workings of your immune system. There is also a direct positive correlation between a healthy social support network and good immune function!
You may not be able to prevent whatever stress has already happened to you, but a useful strategy is to give yourself time to recover after experiencing the stress itself. The problem we see in any chronically stressed population is that people experience one stress after another, and never get a break. This means the system never has the chance to recover properly, so it automatically resets itself at a higher level. If you can somehow get away from the situation, at least you are giving yourself the psychological and physical opportunity to recover and, hopefully, to reset your immune system to where it was before.
The most consistent factor linked to stress reduction, keeping us away from boiling point or burnout, is the joy of human company! Here’s why you need to keep your friends close:
- Positive human interaction reduces the size of your body’s acute stress reactions, which is good news for blood pressure.
- Feeling that you’re supported directly affects the amount of stress hormones that your brain kicks out, which minimises the negative effects on immune function.
- Going out to see friends gives you the chance for a good time and increases your physical activity levels – a double whammy!
- Practical measures are also a great help – friends can always pick up the shopping or run those important errands if you do find yourself unwell.
Do yourself a favour and make some new friends! ……you’ll find all the headaches, sleepless nights, low immunity and reduced cognition levels are well and truly behind you!