Anxiety- the distress evoked by life’s pressures- is perhaps the emotion with the greatest weight of scientific evidence connecting it to the onset of sickness and course of recovery. When fear prepares us to deal with danger ( a presumed benefit in evolution), then it has served us well. But in modern life anxiety is more often out of promotion and out of place- distress comes in the face of situations that we must accommodate or that are conjured by the mind as threats to our self esteem, not physical dangers of the type early man encountered. Repeated bouts of anxiety signal high levels of excess stress.
A1993 review in the “Archives of internal medicine” of extensive research on the stress/disease link noted a broad spectrum of effects these included;
• Compromising immune function to the point that it can speed the metastasis of cancer;
• Increasing vulnerable to viral infections;
• Exacerbating plaque formation leading to atherosclerosis and blood clotting leading to myocardinal infarction.
• Accelerating the onset of type one diabetes and the course of type two diabetes
• And triggering or worsening an asthma attack.
Stress can also lead to ulceration of the gastro-intestinal tract, triggering symptoms in ulcerative colitis and in inflammatory bowel disease. The brain itself is susceptible to the long-term effects of extreme stress, including damage to the hippocampus, and so to memory. In general, evidence is mounting that the nervous system is subjected to “wear and tear” as a result of prolonged stress.
It also appears that under emotional stress our immune defences often fail to fight off viral infections. The Colds Research Unit in Sheffield has found that, more stress in their
lives, the more likely people were to catch colds. Medical students facing exam stress experienced, not only a lowered immune control of the herpes virus, but also a decline in the ability of their white blood cells to kill infected cells, as well as an increase in levels of a chemical associated with suppression of immune abilities in lymphocytes. Reactivation of the latent genital herpes virus has been found in medical students undergoing year end exams, in recently separated women, and among carers looking after a relative Alzheimer’s disease. Placid periods in their lives led to dormancy of the herpes.
Married couples who for three months kept daily check-list of upset relations showed a strong pattern three to four days after an especially intense emotional upset they came down with a cold or upper respiratory infection. That lag period is precisely the incubation period for many common cold viruses, suggesting that being exposed while they were most worried and upset made them especially vulnerable. In another study of families over the course of the influenza season those who experienced the most family crises also had the highest incidence of flu.
While chronic hostility and repeated attacks of anger seem to put men at greatest risk for heart disease, the more deadly emotion for women may be anxiety and fear. In research with more than one thousand men and women who had suffered a first heart attack, those women who went on to suffer a second heart attack were characterised by high levels of fearfulness and anxiety. In many cases, the fearfulness took the form of crippling phobias; after their first heart attack the patients stopped driving, gave up their jobs, or avoided going out. Anxiety may also play a role in making some men more vulnerable to heart disease. In a study, one thousand one hundred and twenty three men and women aged between forty five and seventy seven, were assessed on their emotional profiles.
Those men most prone to anxiety and worry in middle age were far more likely than others to have hypertension when checked again twenty years later.
Understandably, health risks seem greatest for those whose jobs are high in stress; having high pressure performance demands while having little or no control over how to get the job done. In a study five hundred and sixty nine patients with colorectal cancer and a matched comparison group, those who said that in the previous ten years they had experienced severe on the job aggravation were five and half times more likely to have developed the cancer compared to those with no such stress in their lives. A seven-year study of two thousand four hundred and sixty five Danish bus drivers showed that those who died or were admitted to hospital with heart attacks were those who drove the busiest routes. The causative link between negative past life events (stress) and malignant breast cancer is now statistically proven.
Because the medical toll of distress is so broad, relaxation techniques which directly counter the physiological arousal of stress are starting to be used clinically to ease the symptoms of a wide variety of chronic illness. But these can offer only temporary symptomatic relief. Far more effective are alternative treatments like hypnotherapy and NLP which permanently raise the threshold of involuntary anxiety so that patients are undisturbed by stimuli that hitherto would have prompted stress.
( Review compiled by Adam Michael Sanders)