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Taking the sting out of stressors

It’s difficult to avoid daily stress, but experts say one must develop healthier ways of responding to them, reports Sanchita Sharma.

entertainment Updated: Apr 20, 2008 01:12 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Having trouble sleeping lately? Your squabbling colleague and tiresome boss are to blame. More than long working hours, nightshifts or fears of downsizing, it’s the daily hassles at the workplace such as arguments with colleagues that cause stress and interfere with sleep, reports a decade-long US study on 2,300 people.“Together, work and sleep take up about two-thirds of every weekday, so naturally each has an effect on the other. Physical strain at work creates and leads to restorative sleep, but psychological strain has the opposite effect, making it more difficult for people to sleep,” says Dr Rajesh Sagar, associate professor, department of psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

The role stress plays in heart attacks has become part of modern folklore — countless bad actors have been filmed dying clutching their hearts after receiving bad news in popular Bollywood films — but few know that stress adversely affects all parts of the body.

The cardiovascular system (heart and blood circulation system) apart, stress impacts the endocrine system (the hormone system); the gastro-intestinal system (digestive system) and the immune system (the body’s defence system). “Stress causes high blood pressure (hypertension) that raises the risk of heart disease and stroke, and increases acid secretion in the stomach that may cause ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. It suppresses the immune system to increase the susceptibility to colds and other infectious diseases, aggravates allergies such as asthma, and causes anxiety and depression that raise risk of addictions such as smoking, alcohol and drugs,” says Dr SK Sarin, professor and head of gastroenterolgy at GTB Hospital.

The digestive system is among the first affected. “When a person is under stress, the stomach increases production of hydrochloric acid, which can cause inflammation and eventually lead to sores, or ulcers on the lining of the digestive tract. In the short term, stress can cause vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhoea, loss of appetite and haemorrhoids. Over time, intense stress can increase the risk of inflammatory bowel disease,” adds Dr Sarin.

Stress also causes several psychosomatic symptoms. At AIIMS, as many as 40 per cent patients referred to the psychiatry department have psychosomatic complaints. “They develop symptoms that have no physiological basis, such as psychogenic or tension headaches and other psychomotor pain disorders,” says Dr Sagar.

It’s difficult to avoid daily stress, but experts say one must develop healthier ways of responding to them. “One way is to invoke the relaxation response, which is the opposite of the stress response and helps to calm the body. People can choose whichever method makes them feel calmer, such as music, meditation, yoga, walking, breathing exercises, working out, or taking a holiday that allows them to completely break away from their daily schedule,” says Dr Sagar, who regularly prescribes brisk walks as part of therapy to treat his patients.

In meditation, for example, the heartbeat and respiration slow down and the body’s rate of oxygen consumption drops steeply. And blood lactate levels, which some researchers believe are linked to panic attacks, decline markedly. During the act, blood pressure stabilises in healthy people and drops in people with hypertension.

The worse thing you can do is use caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes and tranquillisers to cope with stress. “These not only cause addictions but also aggravate stress. Smoking, for example, actually increases acid production in the stomach, making you feel worse, not better,” says Dr Sarin.