That Can’t Be Healthy

In the second installment of this blog series we learned all stress, including change, triggers physiological reactions. Further these physiological reactions work in a feedback loop with the emotions raised by the stress response to diminish logical decision making, planning skills, personal expression, and management of social behavior. This installment of the blog series will discuss how chronic stress is particularly problematic because of the harm it can do to bodily functions.

Not all stress is bad. Simply put stress is a natural response to stimulus designed to keep us from harm.  Taken in small, short doses stress can provide the benefit of helping humans reduce the complacency and ennui that sometimes encroaches the human condition.  Even low level stress can become harmful over a long duration. For example stress due to recurring conditions, such as managing a long term illness or an unpleasant or demanding job are common. When recurring conditions that cause stress are sustained over a long period of time, it can be referred to as “chronic” stress.

Managers and change leaders should be aware not only does stress from change lead to diminished performance, but it can affect health

Long term or chronic stress may contribute to or worsen a range of health problems including digestive disorders, headaches, sleep disorders, sexual dysfunction, and other symptoms. Additionally, stress may worsen asthma and has been linked to depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. While stress itself is not necessarily problematic, the buildup of cortisol, a stress related hormone, in the brain can have long-term effects. Cortisol’s functions are part of the natural process of the body. In moderation, the hormone is perfectly normal and healthy. In addition to restoring balance to the body after a stress event, cortisol helps regulate blood sugar levels in cells and has a positive effect on the hippocampus, where memories are stored and processed. Managers and change leaders should be aware not only does stress from change lead to diminished performance, but it can affect health, which may have further effects on performance and attendance.

Effects on the Brain

When chronic stress is experienced, the body makes more cortisol than it has a chance to release. This is when cortisol and stress can lead to trouble. High levels of cortisol can wear down the brain’s ability to function properly in multiple ways. It can disrupt synapse (the place where nerve or brain cells connect) regulation, resulting in the loss of sociability and the avoidance of interactions with others. Through this mechanism, stress can kill brain cells and even reduce the size of the brain. Chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory, learning, and higher level social interactions.

While stress can shrink the prefrontal cortex, it can increase the size of the amygdala, which can make the brain more receptive to stress. Cortisol is believed to be the chemical mechanism that hardwires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala in the way that creates the feedback cycle first discussed in Part 2 of this series. By creating a brain that becomes predisposed to a constant state of fight-flight excess, cortisol related problems become self-perpetuating.

Effects of Stress on the Body

Chronic stress doesn’t just lead to impaired cognitive function. It can also lead to other significant problems, such as increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Other bodily systems stop working correctly as well, including the digestive, excretory and reproductive systems. Chronic stress can impair the body’s immune system and worsen any preexisting conditions.

Cardiac and Circulatory System

A vital part of the fight-flight response is for the hypothalamus to signal the adrenal glands to release the hormone adrenaline. Adrenaline increases the heart rate to send blood rushing to the areas that need it most in an emergency, (muscles, lungs and the heart itself). When the perceived threat is gone, the hypothalamus should tell all systems to go back to normal. But in instances of chronic stress the response will continue causing overuse and excess wear of the circulatory system. Other hormones cause the blood vessels to constrict and divert more oxygen to muscles. In a fight-flight scenario this helps ensure more bodily strength needed to take action. In a chronic stress scenario this raises blood pressure and corrodes long term cardiac health.

Respiratory System

Stress hormones affect the respiratory system. During the stress response, humans and animals breathe faster, sometimes to the point of panting, in an effort to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood to the body. If preexisting breathing problems like asthma or emphysema are present, stress can make breathing even more difficult.

Digestive System

Under stress, the liver produces extra glucose (sugar) to give fuel to the body for more energy. Under chronic stress, the body may not be able to keep up with this extra glucose surge. Thus, chronic stress may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Also during stress, blood is shunted away from organ systems that do not directly and immediately support fight-flight activities, such as the stomach and intestines. Meaning the normal activity of the stomach slows while under stress, leading one to be more likely to have heartburn or acid reflux thanks to an increase in stomach acid associated with the slowing in stomach productivity. Stomach acid from stress doesn’t cause ulcers but it can increase the risk for them and cause existing ulcers to act up. Similarly, the way food moves through the intestines during times of stress is interrupted, leading to diarrhea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, or stomachache.

Immune System

Stress stimulates the immune system, which can be a plus for immediate situations. This stimulation can help one avoid infections and heal wounds. But over time, stress hormones pushing the overworked immune system will weaken it and reduce the body’s ability to respond to foreign invaders.

People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections. Likewise, the immune system overtaxed by stress will slow the time it takes for a body to recover from an illness or injury.

In Part 2 of this blog series we learned about what stress does to the mind. In this part, we learned what effect long term stress has on the body. Managers and change leaders should know change and change induced long term stress is harmful to multiple systems of the body. Thus, change can affect not only mental health of colleagues and employees but also the physical wellbeing of those exposed to the change. In the next installment of this series we will discuss how non-physical stressors still end up causing the fight or flight stress response.

This blog post is part of a six-part series:

  1. Have You Ever Heard…?
  2. A Little Neuroscience
  3. That Can’t Be Healthy
  4. Meet the Hijackers
  5. Beat the Hijackers
  6. Strategies for Beating the Hijackers