At some point in their lives virtually everyone will experience stressful events or situations that overwhelm their natural coping mechanisms. In one poll, 89% of respondents indicated that they had experienced serious stress in their lives. Some people are simply biologically prone to stress. Many outside factors influence susceptibility as well.
Conditions Most Likely To Produce Stress-Related Health Problems. Conditions that are most likely to be associated with stress and negative physical effects include the following:
Factors That Influence the Response to Stress. People respond to stress differently, depending on different factors:
Individuals at Higher Risk for Stress. Studies indicate that the following people are more vulnerable to the effects of stress than others:
Children are frequent victims of stress because they are often unable to communicate their feelings accurately. They also have trouble communicating their responses to events over which they have no control. Certain physical symptoms, notably repeated abdominal pain without a known cause, may be indicators of stress in children.
Various conditions can affect their susceptibility to stress.
Parental Stress. Parental stress, especially in mothers, is a particularly powerful source of stress in children, even more important than poverty or overcrowding. Young children of mothers who are highly stressed (particularly if they were depressed) tend to be at high risk for developing stress-related problems. This may be especially true if the mothers were stressed during both the child's infancy and early years. Some evidence even supports the old idea that stress during pregnancy can have adverse effects on the infant's mood and behavior. Older children with stressed mothers may become aggressive and anti-social. Another study suggested that stress-reduction techniques in parents may improve their children's behavior.
Gender Differences in Adolescent Stress. Adolescent boys and girls experience equal amounts of stress, but the source and effects may differ. Girls tend to become stressed from interpersonal situations, and stress is more likely to lead to depression in girls than in boys. For boys, however, specific events, such as changing schools or getting poor grades, appear to be the major sources of stress.
A report issued in October 2006 by the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends more unstructured play time for children. The report notes that todayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s overscheduled, hurried lifestyle that many children experience is a source of stress and anxiety in some children.
In a study of 46,000 workers, health care costs were 147% higher in workers who were stressed or depressed than in others who were not. Furthermore, according to one survey, 40% of American workers describe their jobs as very stressful, making job-related stress an important and preventable health hazard.
Several studies are now suggesting that job-related stress is as great a threat to health as smoking or not exercising. Stress impairs concentration, causes sleeplessness, and increases the risk for illness, back problems, accidents, and lost time from work. Work stress can lead to harassment or even violence while on the job. At its most extreme, chronic stress places a burden on the heart and circulation that in some cases may be fatal. The Japanese even have a word for sudden death due to overwork, karoushi.
Not all work stress is harmful. However, studies suggest the following job-related stressors may increase people's -- particularly men's -- health risks:
Reducing Stress on the Job. Many institutions within the current culture, while paying lip service to stress reduction, put intense pressure on individuals to behave in ways that increase tension. Yet, there are numerous effective management tools and techniques available to reduce stress. Furthermore, treatment for work-related stress has proven benefits for both the employee and employer. In one study, at the end of 2 years, a company that instituted a stress management program saved nearly $150,000 in workers compensations costs (the cost of the program was only $6,000). Other studies have reported specific health benefits resulting from workplace stress-management programs. In one of the studies, workers with hypertension experienced reduced blood pressure after even a brief (16-hour) program that helped them manage stress behaviorally.
In general, however, few workplaces offer stress management programs, and it is usually up to the employee to find their own ways to reduce stress. Here are some suggestions:
It may be helpful to keep in mind that bosses are also victimized by the same stressful conditions they are imposing. For example, in one study of male managers in three Swedish companies, those who worked in a bureaucracy had greater stress-related heart risks than those who worked in companies with social supports.
Caregivers of Family Members. Studies show that caregivers of physically or mentally disabled family members are at risk for chronic stress. One study reported that overall mortality rates were over 60% higher in caregivers who were under constant stress. Spouses caring for a disabled partner are particularly vulnerable to a range of stress-related health threats, including influenza, depression, heart disease, and even poorer survival rates. Caring for a spouse with even minor disabilities can induce severe stress.
Specific risk factors that put caregivers at higher risk for severe stress, or stress-related illnesses, include:
Intervention programs that are aimed at helping the caregiver approach the situation positively can reduce stress, and help the caregiver maintain a positive attitude. A 2002 program also demonstrated that moderate-intensity exercise was very helpful in reducing stress and improving sleep in caregivers.
Health Professional Caregivers. Caregiving among the health professionals is also a high risk factor for stress. One study, for example, found that registered nurses with low job control, high job demands, and low work-related social support experienced very dramatic health declines, both physically and emotionally.
People who are less emotionally stable or have high anxiety levels tend to experience specific events as more stressful than others. Some doctors describe an exaggerated negative response to stress as "catastrophizing" the event (turning it into a catastrophe). Nevertheless, a 2003 study of patients with anxiety disorder did not find any differences in actual physical response to stress (heart rate, blood pressure, release of stress hormones) compared to people without anxiety.
The lack of an established network of family and friends predisposes one to stress disorders and stress-related health problems, including heart disease and infections. A study, meanwhile, reported that older people who maintain active relationships with their adult children are buffered against the adverse health effects of chronic stress-inducing situations, such as low income or lower social class. Another study suggested this may be because people who live alone are unable to discuss negative feelings as a means to relieve their stress.
Studies of people who remain happy and healthy despite many life stresses conclude that most have very good networks of social support. One study indicated that support even from strangers reduced blood pressure surges in people undergoing a stressful event. Many studies suggest that having a pet helps reduce medical problems aggravated by stress, including heart disease and high blood pressure.
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