The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 25, 2001
Keeping fit

All that stress can do
By Dr N.N. Wig, Professor, Psychiatry, PGI, & Dr B.K.Sharma

THE term "stress" is being increasingly used by the common man to loosely denote a kind of mental pressure; when he finds it difficult to cope with the environment or when he experiences some physical or psychological symptoms as a result of difficult circumstances.

Dr N.N. WigNot very well defined medically, stress is sometimes referred to as a cause, like a major life event which makes an excessive demand on the body’s coping mechanisms. More commonly, it is used to depict an effect of unsuccessful efforts to cope and the resulting symptoms.

Changes are going on in our environment all the time and our body and mind keep on adjusting to these changes. Stress is a response to these changes. If the demand is mild to moderate, most of us manage it very well. In fact, a moderate degree of stress and challenge adds zest to life. It keeps us alert and improves our performance. The difficulty comes, however, when we are faced either with acute stress or with chronic stress which is constantly there and gives us no time to recoup or recover.

One can use the analogy of driving a car on a steep uphill slope. We put the engine in the first gear to cope with steep climb. It is all right for some time and the car manages it well but suppose the rise is excessive and constant. We cannot keep on driving in the first gear all the time. The engine will start showing signs of wear and tear. The same is true of our bodies.

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Types of stress

Acute stress can be felt when we are confronted with a sudden loss, like the death of a dear one, or a life-threatening situation like a serious illness, accident, loss of job, or being caught in a natural disaster like earthquake, fire or cyclone etc. Examples of chronic stress are an unhappy marital life, conflicts in the workplace, inadequate financial resources, poor living conditions, worries about children’s future, serious illness in the family and so on. Stress also has a cumulative effect. One may be partly able to cope with one bad situation but if a number of difficult problems come at the same time, coping becomes very difficult.

Dr B.K. SharmaThe famous team of psychologists, Holmes and Rahe, have made a "Life Events Schedule" in which major life events have been quantified according to the amount of stress they produce; for example, death of a spouse carries 100 points, divorce 75 points, retirement 50 points and so on. The general conclusion is that in a span of one year if you have accumulated over 150 points, there are 50 per cent chances of getting an illness and if you have crossed over 300 points, there are more than 80 per cent chances that you will get some physical or psychological illness that year.

Types of individuals

The basic personality or the temperament of the individual is important in coping with stress.

Some people are very sensitive, anxious and nervous. Any critical comment by others upsets them quickly and any minor change in their life seem to affect them adversely.

In recent years, psychologists have also recognised an opposite kind of individuals who seem to be strong, full of drive, dominating but highly competitive, impatient, restless and always trying to control events and persons around them. Psychologists call them Type A personalities. Such persons find it difficult to relax. There is medical evidence that persons with Type A personalities are more likely to get high blood pressure and heart diseases.

Effects of stress on the body and mind

To cope with stress, the body employs many different mechanisms. When we are facing a physical or mental threat, we get very tense, anxious and agitated. Our heart starts beating faster, hands start trembling, breathing gets quicker, there is dryness in the mouth and an uneasy feeling in the pit of the stomach and so on.

All these are due to the secretion of adrenaline and other similar chemicals in the blood. In a way, our body is preparing ourselves for what physiologists call a state of "fight or flight" to cope with the threat. If the threat continues, many more chemicals, such as cortisone-like hormones from adrenal glands, get activated in the body.

They produce many far-reaching changes like increasing blood sugar, raising blood pressure, increasing stomach secretions, tightening of muscles and blood vessels, increasing calcium loss from bones and so on. In a way all the organs of the body work at a high pitch, until almost a state of exhaustion is reached. It is obvious that in such a situation, the body will start experiencing many physical and mental symptoms.

Among the common symptoms of stress are headaches, especially at the back of the head and neck, backache, pain in legs, a pain over the heart region, palpitation, stomach upset, acidity, excessive gas in stomach, feeling of tension, apprehension, tiredness, lack of energy, sadness, poor sleep, a loss of interest in sex and so on. Due to such symptoms, many patients reportedly visit doctors and this often results in needless investigations and medication.

Prolonged, chronic stress leads to yet another kind of body mechanism with more serious consequences. Recent medical research has established that chronic stress leads to the lowering of the body’s immunological processes which are its main defence mechanisms. This results in increasing chances of getting repeated infections, allergies, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer.

In the light of these new findings, one can understand the truth of age old wisdom that when one’s life partner dies in old age, the other partner also does not live very long. The body’s immunological mechanisms start failing due to chronic anxiety and depression. It also explains why when we are mentally tense, a number of other physical illnesses start appearing. For example, during examination time students experience not only tension but also many physical ailments like cough, colds and various kinds of allergies and infections.

(To be concluded)