Stressed for success, paying the price


April 11, 1995|By Dr. Genevieve Matanoski | Dr. Genevieve Matanoski,Medical Tribune News Service

In recent years, numerous studies have indicated that stress -- any occasion in which you perceive that the demands of a situation exceed the ability to cope -- can trigger biological mechanisms that increase the risk of disease or illness, or may weaken the immune system.

For some people, a certain amount of stress can be an energizing, even invigorating, catalyst to productivity. But in the long run, it can take its toll on the body.

Day-to-day irritations are of lower intensity than a major event or crisis such as divorce or the death of a loved one. But if routine irritations occur frequently enough, the accumulated stress can be just as debilitating as if a major crisis had occurred.

Until recently, most stress research focused on men. Only in the last several years have studies begun to follow women into their 40s and 50s.

For many women in the 1990s, whether working at home rearing their children or pursuing careers, day-to-day stress is a fact of life. It can be particularly challenging for women juggling career and family.

Q: How does stress affect the body?

A: At the very least, stress affects health indirectly when women practice harmful coping mechanisms, such as smoking, drinking alcohol or eating too much or too little.

But by triggering the body's "fight or flight" response, stress does much more. Hormones are secreted that quicken the heart rate, expand and stretch blood vessels, elevate blood pressure and increase respiration, among other reactions. The interior lining of the arteries can become damaged, which, with high blood pressure, can lead to heart disease.

Stress also has been implicated in the development of ulcers, arthritis, asthma, migraine headaches, gastrointestinal disorders and skin problems. Recent research suggests that prolonged stress may weaken the immune system, the body's first line of defense against diseases as simple as a cold and as serious as cancer.

Q: Do women have an "edge" in stress reduction?

A: Research shows that women seem to enjoy a degree of protection from some stress-induced health problems, through the possible interaction of female hormones. The female hormone estrogen is thought to blunt stress-induced responses.

Q: What are some common stress-reduction strategies?

A: There are a number of proven methods women can take advantage of to reduce stress. Researchers know that social support -- the physical, psychological and emotional comfort offered by a network of family and friends -- plays a major role in helping women cope with stress.

Another effective activity is exercise, which produces endorphins, one of the brain's natural opiates associated with pain reduction and increased pleasure. Endorphins help women become calmer, more relaxed, and less depressed and frustrated.

In certain cases, professional counseling can be helpful for reducing stress, especially if the primary problem is a relationship.

Dr. Matanoski is a physician and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. She is founding director of its Institute for Women's Health Research and Policy.

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