We’ve all heard someone say “Don’t sweat the small stuff”, a common mantra for those of us trying to relax, be less anxious or deal with the problematic situations that regularly confront us in life. When given as advice, it’s a way of telling people to look at problems objectively and determine which issues really need to be addressed, and which are mundane, routine, or otherwise unimportant. The idea is to reserve one’s mental and physical energy for the important issues, and let the rest go by the wayside.
Some people embrace this approach, while others dismiss it as just another glib self-help slogan. As it turns out, the phrase may hold more validity than people think. In fact, a research study completed last year established a definitive link between stress and long-term health. Furthermore, the way in which people deal with stress is a very important factor in determining their long-term vitality.
How Chronic Stress Can Affect Your Physical Health
Chronic stress is the unrelenting emotional response to a situation. In some cases, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the response continues long after the triggering event is over. In other cases, something like job stress might be the cause, and there is no specific triggering event. In cases of long-term stress, cortisol levels tend to remain elevated. Cortisol is a hormone that controls inflammation (swelling) and maintains blood sugar supplies in the body. It also suppresses the immune system.
In small amounts, and for short periods of time, cortisol is useful for helping the body deal with stress. However, when the body experiences chronic stress, cortisol levels in the blood remain elevated and its daily rhythm is disrupted. This has been shown to contribute to chronic inflammatory conditions, trigger autoimmune disorders, leave the body susceptible to opportunistic infections, and delay healing.
Researchers have found that when the body is exposed to the inflammation-suppressing effects of cortisol for long periods, it creates a vicious cycle. The body develops a resistance to the suppression, and produces more pro-inflammatory cytokines to counter it. This leads to chronic inflammatory conditions like Rheumatoid arthritis, arteriosclerosis, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s Disease. Autoimmune disorders are triggered when the body mistakes itself or its tissues as the enemy, and uses the immune system to attack systems, organs and cells. Fibromyalgia and lupus are common autoimmune conditions.
When we are under chronic stress, the increased levels of cytokines contribute to immune system dysfunction, making it difficult for the body to properly fight off infectious pathogens like bacteria and viruses. That is one reason why chronically stressed individuals are more likely to suffer from colds and flu. In another study, researchers demonstrated that people with higher stress levels healed 40% slower than people not under stress. They were able to show that the stressed-out population had 60% less of a protein called interleukin-1, which is needed for effective healing.
How We Deal With Stress Is Really Important
How does this all relate to the research study I mentioned earlier? Well, this study actually demonstrates how chronic stress today can lead to long-term health problems. Moreover, it shows that the way we deal with that stress today has important implications for those health issues.
The researchers first examined a group of 2000 people to determine how they reacted to stress. Then, 10 years later, they examined the same group of people again. They found that those individuals who coped with stress best (i.e. those that didn’t “sweat the small stuff”) actually had fewer health problems. By contrast, those who allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by stress were more likely to suffer from heart problems and conditions like arthritis.
So, it seems that there is merit in the old saying after all. By choosing not to let things bother you for long periods, or getting help for chronic stress like PTSD, you will help regulate your body’s reaction to stress. This can reduce your risk of developing stress-related conditions like adrenal fatigue, maintain a healthy immune system, and reduce the chance of long-term health problems like heart disease or arthritis. In short, controlling your stress will help you have a better chance of improved long term health.
Charles, et al (2013). “The Wear and Tear of Daily Stressors on Mental Health”. http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/03/25/0956797612462222.