Stress and Illness

The relationship between stress and negative health outcomes is complex and, as such, widely studied. Stress has been identified as a risk factor for conditions or diseases such as diabetes, obesity, depression, and cardiovascular disease; as well as negatively affecting the immune system and leaving the body susceptible to viral infections. Individuals cannot avoid being exposed to stress, as it is present in some shape or form throughout daily life; it can be physical, emotional, environmental; manifest through acute episodes or take place over prolonged periods of time.

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Research continues to explore the effects of stress on the human body and its biological functions, and what makes one person more susceptible to negative consequences than another.

The Effects of a Traumatic Experience

It is estimated that approximately 60% of men and 51% of women in the general population have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives; with the three most common experiences reported as witnessing someone’s death or bodily injury, experiencing a natural disaster, fire or flood; and being involved in a life threatening accident (D’andrea, Zelechoski, Andrea, Sharma, & Spinazzola, 2011). Beyond just a single exposure to one incident, chronic or complex exposure to trauma is common in our population as well, such as physical or sexual abuse during childhood; and non-physical trauma, like growing up in a community where witnessing violence is common, can also contribute to negative outcomes later in life, when these experiences are repeated and occur during important phases of psychological development (D’andrea et al., 2011).

Reactions to a traumatic experience commonly manifest as emotional, physical, cognitive, behavioral, social or developmental in nature and can result from one single experience, or repeated or prolonged exposure (SAMHSA, 2014). Emotional responses to traumatic stress can vary among individuals but are usually on one side of two extremes feeling too much (out of control, overwhelmed) or too little (numb, detached) and could include feelings of anger or fear (SAMHSA, 2014). The body may also produce physical responses such as maintaining a state of hyperarousal, where the body remains prepared to react to a threat, leading to difficulties sleeping, muscle tension and a heightened startle response to loud noises or unexpected, sudden movements (SAMHSA, 2014). Certain experiences or environmental factors can trigger reminders of the traumatic experience or flashbacks, in which the traumatic event is revisited, evoking feelings similar to those experienced following the actual event (SAMHSA, 2014). Persons whose trauma effects remain untreated will also often impose a form of self-isolation and avoid certain people or places that cause anxiety or painful memories; and may also turn to substances to self-medicate (SAMHSA, 2014).

Trauma During Childhood

Traumatic events experienced during childhood can result in life-long consequences, including physical and mental health problems that continue into adulthood (Dube, 2017). Studies have linked experiences such as abuse, neglect, unstable or volatile home lives with alcohol use disorders and depression, as well as cardiovascular and liver disease (Dube, 2017). Brain imaging of people with a history of childhood trauma has also pointed to functional and structural changes in areas of the brain responsible for memory, emotions and learning (Dube, 2017). These experiences can also affect relationships as adults that could make it difficult to form healthy emotional bonds with others (Reyes, 2016).

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