Stress Statistics, Illness and Psychoneuroimmunology

You hear it all the time from almost every one you know – “I am so stressed out!” “Sorry, I’m just under too much stress.” Pressures proliferate in our difficult world today. Pressures that cause stress and anxiety. So often we are ill-equipped to combat daily stress that activates anxiety and other emotions that can make us sick.

The statistics on stress are sobering:

• One in every eight Americans age 18-54 suffers from an anxiety disorder. This totals over 39 million people

• Research conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health has shown that anxiety disorders are the number one mental health problem among American women and are second only to alcohol and drug abuse by men

• Women suffer from anxiety and stress almost twice as much as men.

• Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in America, surpassing even depression in numbers.

• Anxiety is the most common mental health issue facing adults over 65 years of age.

• Anxiety disorders cost the U.S. $46.6 billion annually.

• Anxiety sufferers see an average of five doctors before being successfully diagnosed.

Inevitably, mental stress and anxiety go hand in hand. As a matter of fact, one of the major symptoms of stress overload is anxiety. It has been estimated that stress accounts for 80 percent of all illnesses either directly or indirectly.

Stress is more dangerous than most people think. You probably understand that it can raise your blood pressure, increasing the likelihood of a stroke in the distant future, but a recent health insurance brochure claimed that 90 percent of visits to a primary care physician were stress-related disorders.

Chronic Stress

An article in the journal Health Psychology reports that chronic stress can interfere with the normal function of the body’s immune system. Other studies have found that stressed individuals have higher rates of vulnerability to illness and highly susceptibility to allergic, autoimmune, or cardiovascular diseases.

During chronic stress, functions of the body that are nonessential to survival, such as digestive and immune systems, lower their activity or shut down entirely.

“This is why people get sick,” one physician says. “There are also many occurrences of psychosomatic illness, an illness with an emotional or psychological side to it.”

Furthermore, stress often prompts people without the proper coping techniques to respond in unhealthy ways such as smoking, drinking alcohol, eating poorly, or becoming physically inactive. This damages the body in addition to the wear and tear of the stress itself.

Can we avoid all this? Stress itself is a part of daily life; we have no control over that. But our reactions to stress can be controlled, and make all the difference in maintaining our health and well-being.

Pressures occur throughout life and those pressures cause stress. Begin to accept that you will never completely get rid of stress in your life, but you can learn coping techniques to turn that stress into a healthier situation.

In recent years we have seen the development of a new field of study called psychoneuroimmunology, (a term coined in 1975, by Dr. Robert Ader, director of the division of behavioural and psychosocial medicine at New York’s University of Rochester.) which explores how psychological factors, such as depression and stress, affect our neurological and immune systems.

The Mind-Body Connection

The research increasingly points to psychological states as being a major factor in the development and worsening of inflammatory diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, and autoimmune disorders. This new field bridges the disciplines of neuroscience, immunology, and psychology and embraces mindfulness meditation, yoga, Qi Gong and other non-Western practices.

As stress and depression are being found to affect the immune system, studies are being done on how future antidepressant medications may be used to boost the immune system. For instance, SSRIs, SNRIs and tricyclic antidepressants which act on receptors for the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine have been found to be immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory against pro-inflammatory cytokine processes. It is theorized that future antidepressants could be produced to specifically target the immune system, by either blocking the actions of pro-inflammatory cytokines or increasing the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines.

Stress is even coming to be seen as a form of infection by some experts in psychoneuroimmunology. According to Steven Maier, PhD and professor of psychology at the University of Colorado:

“Stress and infection activate overlapping neural circuits. We’re finding that products of the immune system alter neural activity and everything else that flows from neural activity. It’s not very unusual anymore to think of hormones as regulating neural function, and I believe that in another few years it will be no less unusual to think of immune products regulating neural function.”

One of the best of the recent books on emotions and health is by Esther M. Sternberg, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health. The book, “The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions” looks at the history of mind/body science. One interesting part was about the work of three Nobel prize-winning French scientists who, in 1958, discovered the “interleukins” (molecules that signal between cells), which led to further investigations into how immune cells communicate with the brain.

The reason I like this book was that it was aimed at the layperson rather than the medical academic and so was fun to read, but managed to keep my interest throughout, being not on the level of a mass-market Oprah club type book.