In a research study, 10 happy and friendly people were placed in a room together. When their stress hormones were checked, everyone showed healthy hormone levels. The researchers then added one person to the group who was acting sad/fearful and rather quickly, the other peoples’ stress hormones increased. This is called “social transcriptomic,” in other words, your DNA expresses differently dependent on your social environment!
We see the negative effects of stress in almost EVERY patient who visits our office. Can you relate?
While stress itself can be a positive force that pushes us to evolve and grow, in excess or (as is often the case) not effectively managed, stress will quickly deteriorate health.
From family squabbles to financial strain, the rapidly approaching holiday season is a common stress trigger for many of our patients. Although most of us are well aware, here is a timely reminder of the top health problems either caused by or exacerbated by stress:
Heart disease. Sudden emotional stress can be a trigger for serious cardiac problems, including heart attacks. People who have chronic heart problems need to avoid acute stress—and learn how to successfully manage life’s unavoidable stresses—as much as they can.
Asthma. Many studies have shown that stress can worsen asthma.
Obesity. Excess fat in the belly seems to pose greater health risks than fat on the legs or hips—and unfortunately, that’s just where people with high stress seem to store it.
Diabetes. Stress can worsen diabetes in two ways. First, it increases the likelihood of bad behaviors, such as unhealthy eating and excessive drinking. Second, stress seems to raise the glucose levels of people with type 2 diabetes directly.
Headaches. Stress is considered one of the most common triggers for headaches—not just tension headaches, but migraines as well.
Depression and anxiety. One survey of recent studies found that people who had stress related to their jobs—like demanding work with few rewards—had an 80% higher risk of developing depression within a few years than people with lower stress.
Gastrointestinal problems. While stress doesn’t cause ulcers, it can make them worse. Stress is also a common factor in many other GI conditions, such as chronic heartburn (GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Alzheimer’s disease. One animal study found that stress might worsen Alzheimer’s disease, causing brain lesions to form more quickly. Some researchers speculate that reducing stress has the potential to slow down the progression of the disease.
Accelerated aging. There’s actually evidence that stress can affect how you age. One study compared the DNA of mothers who were under high stress due to caring for a chronically ill child with women who were not. Researchers found that a particular region of the chromosomes showed the effects of accelerated aging. Stress seemed to accelerate aging about 9 to 17 additional years.
Premature death. A study looked at the health effects of stress by studying elderly caregivers looking after their spouses—people who are naturally under a great deal of stress. It found that caregivers had a 63% higher rate of death than people their age who were not caregivers.
We Can’t Choose our Families, But We Can Choose Our Friends
Some family and friends are a joy to be with and their loving presence is nurturing and encouraging. Others may have the opposite effect: draining energy and making us feel tired or exhausted through constant emotional bullying and manipulation. We must refuse to allow ourselves to be treated poorly, and we must remind our patients of this as well—particularly during high-stress, low-light seasons such as the holidays.
Beyond the holiday season, we can help our patients think more deeply about who they choose to spend time with. By doing so, it becomes easier for them to work toward filling their lives with people who help to cultivate healthy and positive relationships. Obviously it is not always possible—at work for example—to be picky, but they can take control over choosing healthy relationships outside of work.
How do we help guide our patients toward healthy social groups? Ask them to take a few moments to reflect on how another person makes them feel. Assessing people in such a way allows them to see if the person adds something constructive to, or subtracts from, their lives. If a friend saps strength and joy, they can simply decide to tell them how they feel or spend less time with them.
The moment that patients get honest about their own feelings, the more candid they can be with others. While this may involve some drastic changes to their social life, it can bring about a truly empowering personal transformation. By surrounding themselves with positive people, they clear away the negative distractions and create more room for nurturing and renewed energy. Doing this will not only enrich their lives, but also envelop them in a supportive and healing space.
Remind your patients to choose their friends with care, as social groups create an environment to either thrive or wilt. While it is wonderful to offer kindness and compassion to many, encourage your patients to share their dreams and goals only with those who value them and show it.
“What really matters is that you do what you think is right, what you believe in, and you surround yourself with the people you care about in this world. That’s what counts in this life.” – Brian Dennehy
By Paul Savage, MD, FAARM, ABAARM
Founder and Chief Medical Officer, Power2Practice
As the first EMR designed for Integrative, Anti-Aging and Functional Medicine, Power2Practice offers the innovative patient support tools and accessibility features that physicians need to educate, empower and activate patients of all ages.