Human Factors- Is Your Stress Killing You?

Overworked Japanese Worker

Workers in warehouse. Istockalypse Tokyo, Japan

It’s no secret that stress has negative effects on our body. Each year more and more data is accumulated outlining the physical, mental and emotional symptoms of stress. When discussing stress as it relates to Human Factors we’re often concerned with the onset of fatigue or distraction. Acute stress is intense. We’re talking heat of the moment, down to the wire, in your face, redline stress! It’s very difficult but often short-term. Think of a traumatic event or serious deadline that someone dropped on you about oh, 30 seconds ago. Chronic Stress is much different. Chronic stress is the grind. The constant burden we’re never able to get out from under so we’ve just kind of gotten used to dragging it around. This is more in line with the early mornings, late nights, never quite caught up, can’t relax slugfest. Those who suffer from chronic stress feel the pressure to perform constantly and often times begin to suffer greatly for it. The most dangerous part is that they no longer recognize it as stress. Now, it’s just become life. Most of you are nodding your heads right now because you can already relate. Below are some of the physical, mental, and social risks of poorly manages stress.

The Body:

According to the American Psychological Association, when the body is stressed, muscles become tense; it’s an automatic response, the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain. With the sudden onset of stress, the muscles tense all at once, then release their tension when the stress passes. Chronic stress causes the body to be in a constant state of guardedness. When muscles are tense over a long period of time, it may trigger other reactions of the body and promote stress-related disorders. Tension-type and migraine headaches are associated with chronic muscle tension in the area of the shoulders, neck, and head.

Chronic, long-term stress can contribute to problems of the heart and blood vessels. The consistent increase in blood pressure and heart rate, as well as the higher level of circulating stress hormones, take a toll on health. They increase the risk of hypertension (high blood pressure), heart attack and stroke.

Recurrent acute and persistent chronic stress can contribute to inflammation in the circulatory system, especially the coronary arteries. It is believed that it’s such inflammation that ties stress to heart attacks. Chronic stress can also elevate total cholesterol levels.

Stress can make you breathe harder. That’s not a problem for most people, but for those with asthma or a lung disease such as emphysema, getting the oxygen you need to breathe easier can be difficult. And some studies show that an acute stress such as the death of a loved one can actually trigger asthma attacks, in which the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts.In addition, stress can cause the rapid breathing or hyperventilation that can bring on a panic attack in someone prone.

For women, the effects can be even more devastating. Dr. Len Lopez stated,

“The rate of infertility, miscarriages, and C-sections are at an all-time high. Add everyday worry and anxiety to the equation and you will easily see how stress can contribute to these problems.Stress, as it does in so many areas of our lives, interferes with the reproductive process and is a major cause for infertility and miscarriages. The reason is simple: lack of progesterone.The word progesterone means “for gestation,” which means that women, you need this hormone in its right balance if you want be become pregnant and stay pregnant. Progesterone nourishes the uterine lining in preparation of the implanted fertilized egg. It is progesterone that continually feeds and nourishes the uterus during pregnancy. Unfortunately, constant stress causes a decrease in your progesterone levels.When you are constantly in that “fight or flight” mode because of stress, your adrenal glands will produce additional cortisol and adrenaline. This is a normal bio-chemical process. The problem is that in order to make cortisol, your adrenal glands need progesterone. This causes your progesterone to be used in making your stress hormones, as opposed to what it is designed to do —support your pregnancy.”

The Mind:

Stress can also cause individuals to suffer impaired judgement, according to the Mayo Clinic. This is because stress makes it difficult for people to think things through before making decisions. Income cases, it hinders people from making any decision at all.

Ciaran O’Connor of Psych Central wrote, “Perhaps my favorite quote on decision making comes from Mr. Miyagi.

Walk on road, hm? Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later… you get squish just like grape.

  Mr. Miyagi’s point is that if you are going to make a decision, then make it 100 percent. An attractive prospect, sometimes one we’re unaware of, is to take action, but only halfheartedly. You might decide to take the plunge and start a new business venture, but also spend precious and potentially profitable hours looking for other work just in case it doesn’t work out. It’s almost guaranteed in this situation you will get squish like grape.”

  The catch-22 of stress and indecision is the vicious cycle found in their relationship. Stress causes indecision and indecision causes stress. The wheel just keeps spinning until one of issues is addressed.

  Depression is an enormous concern with stress. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley recently discovered that chronic stress can catalyze long-term changes in the human brain. This could help explain why those that suffer from chronic stress are more likely to become victim to other mental issues like anxiety and mood disorders.  People with depression may experience a lack of interest and pleasure in daily activities, significant weight loss or gain, insomnia or excessive sleeping, lack of energy, inability to concentrate, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.

  Those with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat. Increased blood pressure and other physical changes associated with irritability and anger make it difficult to think straight and harm your physical and mental health.

  Stress and anxiety are a known cause of multiple sleep disorders. Whether the stress is acute or chronic there are ways to overcome frequent occurrences. As someone who has learned to deal with sleep disorders the best method I’ve found is Sleep Hygiene. Dr. Michael Thorpy of the Sleep Foundation recommends these practices

  • Avoid napping during the day. It can disturb the normal pattern of sleep and wakefulness.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol too close to bedtime. While alcohol is well known to speed the onset of sleep, it disrupts sleep in the second half as the body begins to metabolize the alcohol, causing arousal.
  • Exercise can promote good sleep. Vigorous exercise should be taken in the morning or late afternoon. A relaxing exercise, like yoga, can be done before bed to help initiate a restful night’s sleep.
  • Food can be disruptive right before sleep.  Stay away from large meals close to bedtime. Also dietary changes can cause sleep problems, if someone is struggling with a sleep problem, it’s not a good time to start experimenting with spicy dishes. And, remember, chocolate has caffeine.
  • Ensure adequate exposure to natural light. This is particularly important for older people who may not venture outside as frequently as children and adults. Light exposure helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
  • Establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine. Try to avoid emotionally upsetting conversations and activities before trying to go to sleep. Don’t dwell on, or bring your problems to bed.
  • Associate your bed with sleep. It’s not a good idea to use your bed to watch TV, listen to the radio, or read.

Behavior:

According to the National Library of Medicine, many of the major theories of addiction also identify an important role of stress in addiction processes. These range from psychological models of addiction that view drug use and abuse as a coping strategy to deal with stress, to reduce tension, to self medicate, and to decrease withdrawal-related distress,31–37 to neurobiological models that propose incentive sensitization and stress allostasis concepts to explain how neuroadaptations in reward, learning, and stress pathways may enhance craving, loss of control, and compulsion, the key components in the transition from casual use of substances to the inability to stop chronic use despite adverse consequences, a key feature of addiction.

  Would you believe that stress could actually make you accident prone? Berkeley Wellness writes that most of us can recall a time when we were distracted or upset and then had an accident. Chronic emotional stress, deep grief, and serious emotional problems also increase the risk. Studies of athletes, for example, have found that players under severe emotional (or physical) stress are more vulnerable to injury. Moreover, an initial serious injury can, in turn, produce stress that makes entire families vulnerable, so that injuries often cluster. A study in Pediatrics last year found that when a child was seriously injured, there was a 20 percent chance that a sibling would be injured (or the first child re-injured) during the next three months. And the new accidents weren’t necessarily similar to the initial ones.

Regardless of how resilient or adapted you may be at some point stress will enter your life. The key is recognizing its effects and remedying the root causes before they become chronic symptoms. For stress resources, information, and treatment options check out just a few of the references below.

The American Psychological Association

LSU Health Science Center

Psych Central 

Berkeley Wellness

The Lung Institute

Mayo Clinic

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