April is National Stress Awareness Month. Certainly most people have experienced a headache or a poor night’s sleep after a stressful day, but in fact it can do a lot more than this. Each person responds differently to stress, and different types have different effects.

Types of stress

There are three types of stress: acute, episodic acute, and chronic.

Acute stress is a burst that comes from a specific incident, like a fender-bender or a work deadline. The potential symptoms of acute stress are quite noticeable and include:

  • Emotional distress, including anxiety, depression, or anger
  • Muscular pain, such as jaw or back pain or tension headaches
  • Digestion issues, like constipation, diarrhea, flatulence, or heartburn

People who suffer from episodic acute stress experience frequent incidents of acute stress. For example, people who exhibit a fierce competitiveness over everyday activities might also experience frequent bouts of acute stress during those activities. “Worrywarts” who constantly see disaster or catastrophe around the corner might feel acute stress on a very regular basis. Symptoms of this include tension headaches, migraines, hypertension, or even heart disease.

Chronic stress comes from day-to-day trials. People in unhappy marriages, in caregiver positions, those in pain, or people in miserable jobs often suffer from chronic stress. It can accompany miserable situations with no apparent escape. Eventually it can convince individuals that there is no use searching for solutions to problems. Chronic stress is particularly dangerous because it’s so constant that it can easily be forgotten or become familiar.

The effects of stress

Some of the effects of stress are easy to notice.

Headaches, digestive issues, muscle aches, or irritability – all typically associated with acute types – are generally pretty clear. In addition to these common effects, people experiencing it might notice a few other things.

For instance, one study looked at seasonal allergies. It was found that while high levels of stress don’t cause allergies, they can lead to more allergy flare-ups. Therefore, stressed-out people suffering from hay fever might experience more days with more intense sneezing, stuffy or runny noses, or itchy eyes. The increased allergy symptoms might not occur on the same day as the stress, but the researchers found that people tended to experience increased allergy symptoms within days of their increased stress.

People with high levels of stress might also notice that those around them are also suffering from more stress. Scientists have found that stress is highly contagious, especially between partners in a relationships. As many as 40% of people experienced empathic stress when they witnessed their partner experiencing it. Even when the observed person was a stranger, 10% of people still experienced empathic stress.

The true danger of stress lies in its more subtle effects.

Acute stress causes a temporary spike in blood pressure. Studies have also shown that stress might have a longer-lasting effect on health. One recent study found that stress can cause older men to live shorter lives than their peers. Both significant life events, such as the death of a spouse or loss of a job, and everyday stressors, like traffic or a difficult job, impacted men’s health. It was also found that it’s not necessarily the everyday stressors that negatively impact health; it’s the individual’s perception of those as stressful that makes them harmful.

Also, while it’s well-known that a high-fat, high-sugar diet isn’t healthy, researchers at UC San Francisco have found that stress can make an unhealthy diet even unhealthier. Metabolic syndrome is a group of symptoms that occur together, including high blood sugar levels, extra body fat around the waist, increased blood pressure, and abnormal cholesterol levels. Women who were under stress experienced more symptoms of metabolic syndrome, even though women without it reported eating the same amounts of the same foods.

Chronic pain and stress

For people with a chronic pain condition, stress can also have an impact on pain levels.

Some types of pain are directly connected to stress levels. For example, someone who suffers from headaches after grinding his or her teeth will grind their teeth more while under stress. This can in turn worsen headaches. The connection between stress and pain goes deeper than this type of cycle, though.

A study recently published in the journal PAIN examined the body’s ability to tolerate pain while under acute psychological stress. Professor Ruth Defrin, of the Department of Physical Therapy at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine, expected that stress might help the body modulate pain better, because of common stories about athletes taking no notice of injuries. However, the results were just the opposite. Acute stress does not affect pain threshold or pain tolerance, but it does increase pain intensification and decrease the body’s ability to inhibit pain.

This means that acute psychological stress might not affect a person when pain is first experienced or how long it can be tolerated. However, it may very well affect how intense the pain is perceived to be. Additionally, it was found that the altered intensity of pain was related to how stressed individuals were. The more acutely stressed out a person was, the more he or she experienced increased pain intensity.

Chronic stress, too, interferes with pain. Chronic stress causes changes in the brain. Over time, these changes can negatively impact the parts of the brain that manage pain, meaning that it can confuse the brain into thinking it’s experiencing new or worsened pain.

Additionally, inflammation plays a role in overall health, as well as in pain. One study found that negative emotions (such as stress) can interfere with the part of the brain that regulates inflammation. In fact, the increased pro-inflammatory markers seen in people under stress may be why there are such strong links between it and heart disease; too much inflammation can increase the risk factors for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. In individuals with chronic pain, which is often caused or worsened by inflammation, increased pro-inflammatory markers from stress are certainly not a good thing.

In a way, however, the tight connections between stress and pain can be viewed as a good thing. Just as increased stress can increase pain, decreased stress can decrease pain. By finding ways to lower stress, people can both improve their overall health and control their pain levels.

Have you noticed a connection between your stress and pain levels?

Image by anna gutermuth via Flickr

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