This column examines "disease proneness" and the role that stress often plays in disease-prone personality patterns. Research demonstrates that a relationship can exist between stress-provoking personality patterns and illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and life problems, including anxiety, depression and, among others, insomnia.
Our personality patterns are learned and conditioned. In time, they become habitual, automatic and unconscious. They develop in response to the unique circumstances of our family and culture. In addition, we download some of our parents' personality patterns through an unconscious process known as "observational learning."
Conditioned personality patterns show up as our styles of thinking, feeling and behaving. Some styles set up conditions for physical illness. What we think and feel manifests in every cell in our body. Stress-driven thoughts and feelings, for example, trigger complex negative biochemical changes throughout our body.
These changes can put strain on our heart, suppress our immune system and thyroid function, leave us at risk for chronic inflammation, age us prematurely and hinder our brain's thinking and memory abilities.
Stress-related illnesses are the major killers of Americans today. European studies examining disease proneness showed that, when compared to a group with low and well managed stress, a high-stress group had 40 percent more deaths from heart disease and cancer.
The phenomenon known as "sudden death" often triggers when stress hormones seep into the blood and tissues surrounding the heart causing the heart's electrical system to malfunction. Sudden death causes more than 320,000 annual deaths in the United States alone.
Stress hormones also contribute to cancer by weakening our immune system so that mutant cells — which would be held in check under low-stress hormone conditions — establish a foothold and multiply under chronic high-stress hormone conditions.
Too often, the word "stress" is misunderstood as referring to vague feelings of tension and nervousness. But from a health science perspective, stress needs to be understood in terms of our body's nervous system and its ability to prepare us for life-threatening emergencies that require fight or flight.
Two major switches govern the operation of this system.
One switch controls the ordinary housekeeping chores of the body. These chores keep us living by doing the work of digestion, elimination, metabolism or more. The other switch is meant for "short-term-only" emergency alert situations that call for the fight or flight. When one switch is on, the other is typically off. If our housekeeping chore switch is chronically off, we suffer the consequences.
Under chronic stress, our "stress hormone faucet" turns on too often, and it stays on for too long. This leads to stress hormones seeping into our blood and tissues and lingering there, setting up conditions for serious illness and anxiety, depression and insomnia. Stress hormones are not meant to linger — they are meant to be flushed out of our system.
They linger because our fight or flight response hardwiring is obsolete and doesn't function properly. It often triggers in error. Evolutionary scientists call this problem the "great mismatch." Unfortunately, our hardwiring is meant for a time that's long gone. It's not matched up well with the way we live today.
In the last 25,000 years, the human body has pretty much remained the same. But the way that humans live has changed dramatically. We've undergone 400 years of social change in the last 60 years.
If people alive thousands of years ago were to appear in our midst today, they would think that they were on another planet. Because of the complexity of our lives, the body's fight or flight response is often triggered unnecessarily.
The good news is that research also shows that we can reduce our toxic stress hormone levels significantly by changing our destructive or disease-prone personality patterns — if we learn how. Psychotherapy and behavioral medicine training can enable us to avoid disease and become more healthy by modifying our personality style to become more stress resilient.
It may be that in thousands of years, the body will evolve a fail-safe system to shut down any unnecessary activation of the stress response. But, for now, we have to learn to do this ourselves. Therapy and behavioral medicine training can empower us to modify our stress-provoking personality patterns and to prevent and shut down the unnecessary release of stress hormones into our system.
We can also learn how to flush stress hormones from our blood and tissues so we avoid the conditions that set up serious health problems. Learning to do all this is easy and enjoyable. It's the foundation for living long and well.
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Dr. Jim Manganiello is a clinical psychologist and diplomate-level medical psychotherapist based in Groveland and West Boxford. He is also an author and teacher focusing on stress, personal growth, meditation and "inner fitness." His book "Unshakable Certainty" is available on Amazon. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.drjimmanganiello.com.