May 31, 2019

Stress, Physical and Mental Health: The Unexpected Connection

Brian Distelberg says stress has more impact on physical and mental health than most people might realize.

Distelberg, who serves as director of research for Loma Linda University Health’s Behavioral Medicine Center, works to uncover the impact of stress and find supportive solutions for patients.

Distelberg directs the MEND program, an initiative that supports patients and their families in maintaining or regaining emotional health and balance during significant medical illness or treatment. Enrollment in the program has grown 300 percent since the beginning of 2018.

For May’s Mental Health Month — which has been celebrated every year since 1949 in the United States and more recently in other countries — Distelberg sat down for an interview to discuss the unexpected connections between stress and physical and mental health — and what could be the solution.

Janelle Ringer: Let’s start with off with a seemingly fundamental question: What is stress?

Brian Distelberg: That’s a tough question because, in terms of an academic definition, there is no definition of stress. Stress is the term that we use in our everyday world, and it can mean different things to different people.

Someone might feel stressed because somebody makes a loud noise right behind them, prompting a stress response because they have been startled. It’s a natural reaction and probably not what most people are concerned about when we’re talking about stress.

There’s also stress at the psychological level, which is called cognitive stress. This stress can come from financial difficulty, problematic relationships, work, or even from just being human.

What people are generally more interested in is the idea of “distress,” or when our bodies and minds are under a constant state of stress. This stress happens at the biological level and creates a biochemical reaction in the body that involves not only our brain but several different body processes.

JR: Does long-term stress have a different impact than a more acute short-term stress?

BD: Unquestionably. The length and severity of the stress make a huge difference in how your body may react. Prolonged or heightened stress can have a more long-term effect on the body than a serious but short-term stress. If stress is sustained for a long period of time, it’s also going to increase the chances of a physical health condition or mental health condition developing or worsening.

JR: What body systems can be impacted by stress?

BD: A popular area of science right now is focused on identifying how stress impacts the body as a whole. Prolonged distress is shown to have an effect on the body — whether it’s your heart rate increasing, your breathing rate quickening, or another “in the moment” reaction to a situation. If that distress continues long term, it can exact a cost.

At a biological level, we’re beginning to see that certain diseases are “stress-based” or “stress-linked” diseases. These are things like asthma, diabetes, and certain pain disorders.

JR: Are any groups more susceptible to the impact of stress?

BD: There’s an entire field of science called health disparities research that looks into health outcomes based on race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. We wouldn’t say that they’re more susceptible to stress, but we are seeing that they tend to be disproportionately under more stress.

These groups show more negative health outcomes because they live in communities where environmental impactors are higher for them. There are many reasons why individuals who are lower income are having more negative health outcome consequences — stress being one.

Age can also be a factor. Recent studies show that stress is having an impact on cognitive functioning. When stress is high, it can deplete a person’s cognitive ability. This research surrounds adolescents and suggests that their age group can be more susceptible to the effects of that negative distress.

On the older spectrum, we look at the relationship between stress and dementia, and it does seem like there are some links between heightened levels of stress and a more rapid progression of dementia over time.

JR: How can people who can’t avoid stress, such as nurses, students, and so on, learn to manage it?

BD: We can’t ever completely avoid stress. However, a person can combat stress by building their resiliency. Each person can tolerate a different level of stress, but without knowing where the level is, a better option is to focus on building resiliency.

Eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and exercising — making sure that we’re active at least thirty minutes out of every day — are all critical in building resilience to stress.

We also see that being in relationships with others and having social support and social interaction is critical for moderating the effects of stress on the body.

This interview was originally posted on the Loma Linda University Health news site.