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How Stress Affects Health

Ever  have a  bad day (or month)  and things just start hurting? Your head hurts, your stomach is upset, and your back aches?

It was not that long ago that the medical establishment taught that our emotions have no significant effect on how we feel physically. Over the past three or four decades, it has become increasingly clear that they were wrong. The New England Journal of Medicine published an article by Norman Cousins, describing how he cured himself of a serious illness through “humor therapy.” Cousins, an editor at the Saturday Review, was neither a physician nor a scientist. The unusual invitation from the New England Journal was an admission, of sorts, of the significant role of the psyche on our physical health. Hans Selye is considered the pioneer in the study of stress and its management. However, many others have contributed to our increased understanding of the syndrome. Researchers at the Menninger Clinic in Kansas studied biofeedback  and gave us a new understanding as to how the body and mind work together. Through their work, it became clear  that even the   “involuntary,”   smooth   muscles, such as  the heart and stomach, could be trained to come under our control. People could be taught to control their heartbeat, blood pressure, and hand temperature, as well as many other bodily reactions and functions.

It is important to differentiate between different types of maladies. When illness or injury can be linked to a particular site or origin, it is considered physical. When there are no clearly physical symptoms, it is considered psychological. However, there is a third category. Sometimes, there are well defined and measurable physical symptoms, but they can’t be definitively tied to a particular physical disease  or  origin.   These are  known as somatoform, or psychosomatic illnesses. Psychosomatic   illness   is clearly not just in the person’s mind; there are clear physical manifestations. One area to which this concept has been applied is back pain. Dr. John Sarno is the Director of the Outpatient Department at Rusk Institute,  a part of the New York University Medical Center.  He  has  written   extensively on back pain and  related illnesses. Dr. Sarno has outraged many in the medical field by claiming that 95% of back surgery is  malpractice. His   basic thesis is that the vast majority of    back pain has nothing to do with the spine. Wear and tear to the spine is a normal part of aging, and even herniated discs are not necessarily correlated  with pain. Rather,  most back pain, as  well as other related syndromes, is the result of tension myositis syndrome (TMS), related to blood flow to the muscles. His treatment methods involve educating his patients to not worry as much about hurting their spines, to accept the stress and emotional pain they experience as psychological, rather than somatisizing it to a physical site. He doesn’t believe one has to get rid of the stress; just recognize and accept its psychological nature.

Another source of  research  relating to stress is Dr. Janice  Kiecolt-Glaser and her team of researchers at Ohio State University Medical Center. They have shown that chronic stress wreaks havoc on the body and leads to a  host of maladies, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, and  diabetes. Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser reports that feeling overwhelmed has far-reaching physical effects, which are the result of stress- induced chronic inflammation. When the immune system is in a constant state of  high alert, the body is  worn   down and becomes less able to fight disease, heal wounds and develop antibodies. She found that people who had difficult childhoods are especially susceptible to the physical effects of chronic stress. She also found that interventions, like yoga, which help people deal with their lives in different ways, can boost the immune system and counteract other effects of stress.

In this article we introduced the concept of stress and its relationship to both the physical  and  emotional parts of our bodies. In future articles we will present practical exercises and methods for reducing stress and will examine specific modalities for dealing with stress in ways that don’t have a negative impact on our bodies and our health.

- By Dr. Yitzhak Berger Dr. Yitzhak Berger is a licensed psychologist who has been practicing in a variety of settings for over 35 years. He has a specialty in rehabilitation psychology. He currently teaches in the Applied Psychology Department at New York University. Dr. Berger is particularly interested in the mind-body therapies and has expertise in relaxation   training, biofeedback, and hypnosis.

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