Jody Seidler's relentless schedule has started taking a toll on her body. A 43-year-old single mother, she has a demanding job at a Southern California movie studio. At home, she finds it impossible to relax because "things will fall apart."
Lately, Jody has suffered from stomachaches and recurring headaches. She also has trouble sleeping. "Stress has, unfortunately, become a way of life," she says. "I want to live long, but I fear all the stress is going to create an illness later on."
Real Damage. Jody's fears are not exagerated. Stress seems to be related to a wide variety of illnesses. Studies have linked stress to a weaked immune system, the body's defense against infection.
Dr. Ronald Glaser, a virologist at Ohio State University, and Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a psychologist there, have shown that women who care for spouses with Alzheimer's disease generally have a weakened immune system. When inoculated with a flu vaccine, they have a much poorer immune response compared to other women their age.
Stress affects us in many ways, some of which science is just beginning to understand, says Dr. Glaser. Susceptibility to colds or infections may be related to the pressure in one's life. He also suspects that stress may play a role in some cancers and autoimmune disease.
Dr. Redford Williams, a behavioral medicine expert at Duke University Medical Center, paints an even stronger connection between stress and poor health. "What stress does, in all different forms, is lower resistance to all pathogens," he says, leaving people more vulnerable to infections and even cancer. Studies have also shown that people with high cholesterol who lead high-pressure lives are more likely to develop arteriosclerosis, a dangerous thickening of the arterial wall.
Stress Discriminates. Who typically gets hit the hardest by stress? "It falls mainly on the women," says Dr. Williams. Working mothers have a physical response to this daily grind, Dr. Williams says. Their level of cortisol -- a hormone secreted in response to stress -- is higher than in working women with no children at home. Excess cortisol is unhealthy because it suppresses the immune system. It also causes cholesterol and blood pressure to rise, and stays elevated even during sleep.
Men, on the other hand, fare much better. In fact, two additional biochemical stress markers, known as epinephrine and norepinephrine, plummet in their bodies once they walk in the house after a hard day at the office, Dr. Williams says.
"When women return home at the end of the day they do not do the same kind of unwinding that we see in men," adds Margaret Chesney, a stress researcher at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. "It's very clear that women do not unwind. They are the manager. And everyone knows mom is going to do it in the end."
Stress is a normal and expected part of life. Most of us adapt to stress, at least most of the time. This series of questions can help you decide whether stress has overtaken your ability to handle it in a healthful way.
The more of these questions you answer "Yes" to, the more likely that stress is injuring your health. Consider the changes you can make in your life. Or see a doctor or therapist about sound ways to cope with stress.
There are ways to put a lid on stress. Here's what the experts suggest: