Civil unrest

How can stress impact your health?


Alison Cullen
@AVogelUK


03 July 2013

Civil unrest

Civil servants are ideal people to pick if you want to do long-term follow-up studies on health issues because they tend to stay in their posts rather than hop from job to job. They are therefore easy to locate in the following years of the project.

The Whitehall Study is such an endeavour. Started in 1967, it followed 18,000 male civil servants for 10 years to determine the relationship between their social position (e.g. grade level at work) and mortality rates. Of particular interest to the researchers was the prevalence of heart disease – high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, and similar jolly little health events.

A second phase of the Study was then undertaken, this time involving women civil servants as well as men. Since then, a long-term follow up study involving participants of the first two phases has been going on, with the results being reported every few years.

The first two phases of the Study showed that the lower grade employees had a mortality rate three times higher than that of higher grade employees. The latest Study findings have honed in more precisely on what is affecting the civil servants in this adverse manner.

Stress at the bottom

In 2010, the findings showed a distinct link between the social position of each Whitehall employee and the amount of cortisol they secreted. [1]

Cortiosol secretion indicates stress levels – it should be relatively high in the early morning, to help us wake up, and then fall during the day so that we can get to sleep in the evening.

In the study, those with the lowest social position (according to current or previous occupational grade and wealth) had the least decline in cortisol levels during the day, indicating that they were more stressed. Smoking and short duration sleep were found to be the key reasons behind the physical evidence.

[1] Kumari M et al. Psychomatic Medicine 2010; 72: 27-34

Not All (but a lot) in the Mind

The most recent findings, acquired over 18 years of the follow-up study, indicate that believing in the negative impact of stress on health actually contributes to that negative effect. [2]

Those who reported that they believed that stress had affected their health ‘a lot or extremely’ had a 2.12 times higher chance of suffering a heart attack or actually dying of heart disease than those who reported that stress had no effect on their health.

So not only does being stressed raise your cortisol levels, thus contributing to worse health, but worrying about the effect of stress is adding to the burden.

It’s difficult to see how these findings will do anything but compound the problem, given that the worriers will now have a more concrete basis for their fears.

It’s of very little use to tell people with frazzled nerves and dubious health that if they stop believing that stress is bad for them it will become less bad for them. “If you don’t stop worrying, something bad will happen”, is hardly a reassuring pronouncement.

The researchers suggest in a hopeful tone that more attention be paid to the health concerns of those complaining of the negative impact of stress. It’s possible that doctors might have other ideas about a campaign that could almost be a prescription for hypochondria.

An additional difficulty is that the adverse effects are associated with the subjects’ beliefs about the effects of stress, rather than the amount of stress they perceive themselves to be under. Thus, even if lifestyle and work factors are adjusted to minimise stress, the destructive worrying won’t necessarily be addressed.

There are, however, some glimmers of light in the depths of the research.

Research bearing fruit

Those participants with the most pessimistic views on the impact of stress were more likely to smoke and less likely to consume fruit and vegetables daily or take regular exercise.

It might therefore be more productive to focus on physical health, encouraging a fruitier, more active lifestyle, than fretting about psychological beliefs.

As exercise raises endorphin levels, and endorphins boost mood, a brisk walk and a bowl of cherries might promote better health outcomes than probing the psyche.

Heart's ease

Those wishing to improve their heart health and reduce the likelihood of coronary heart disease will very probably be aware of the practical steps they should take. A better diet and more exercise, no smoking and a ban on chip suppers are high on the hearty agenda.

The helpful hint to take away from this study is that calming stressful tendencies will benefit the heart as much as it relieves the jangled nervous system.

  • Sleep on it: getting sufficient sleep is an important step towards a less anxious state of mind. Consider herbal remedies to promote better sleep patterns, and prioritise sufficient time for sleep.
  • B’ calmer: vitamin B is good for the nervous system so eat plenty of wholegrains and green vegetables to scoop it up, and consider a supplement for a head start.
  • Plant life: herbs can be a great help to the nervous system, taking the edge off anxiety and nervous tension without causing grogginess or other side effects. Choose from Passiflora, Valerian, Avena sativa or Hypericum to sooth your troubles away.
  • Say it with flowers: there are plenty of Flower Essences that work on emotional health. Choose one that supports relaxation or mood, to help break the worry habit.

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