Introduction: Stress and Illness

What you’ll learn to do: explain the negative physiological responses to stress

In this section, we will discuss stress and illness. As stress researcher Robert Sapolsky (1998) describes,

stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions. (p. 6)

The stress response, as noted earlier, consists of a coordinated but complex system of physiological reactions that are called upon as needed. These reactions are beneficial at times because they prepare us to deal with potentially dangerous or threatening situations (for example, recall our old friend, the fearsome bear on the trail). However, health is affected when physiological reactions are sustained, as can happen in response to ongoing stress. A number of studies have demonstrated that stress weakens the functioning of the immune system. Cardiovascular disorders are serious medical conditions that have been consistently shown to be influenced by stress and negative emotions, such as anger, negative affectivity, and depression. Other psychophysiological disorders that are known to be influenced by stress and emotional factors include asthma and tension headaches.

To watch an overview about the impact that stressors have on the body, watch this lecture from MIT’s John Gabrieli on stress:

Learning Objectives

  • Describe how stress impacts the functioning of the immune system
  • Describe how stress and emotional factors can lead to the development and exacerbation of cardiovascular disorders
  • Describe the connection that stress has with asthma and tension headaches