Twenty years ago doctors were still telling us that stress had nothing to do with conditions such as depression, autoimmune disease and cancer. Patients suffering from these conditions often knew otherwise. But the conviction of patients alone wasn’t enough to change the doctor’s minds.
Times have changed. These days, new studies linking stress to disease are released almost daily. We now have a much better understanding of how stress causes disease. In fact, we have a new field - psychoneuroimmunology - dedicated entirely to the study of those mechanisms.
Many researchers (myself included) have come to believe that stress is the single most important causative factor in the disease process. Heart disease and cancer are the top two causes of death in the U.S. each year. Stress has been conclusively linked to both of these conditions. That means stress is at least partially responsible for the majority of deaths each year.
This is where research conducted in animals has provided critical information. Initial data by investigators, such as Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University, suggested that stress might promote the death of neurons, suggesting that the volume reductions in patients with PTSD might reflect the loss of nerve cells. More recent research by Bruce McEwen and colleagues at Rockefeller University indicates that stress can cause neurons to shrink or retract their connections.
A new paper by Hajszan and colleagues at Yale University suggests that stress-related reductions in synapses in the hippocampus are directly related to the emergence of depression-like behavior. This is yet another contribution to the already significant body of medical literature correlating stress with depression.
So how can you minimize the harmful effects of stress in an increasingly stressful world?
- Practice mindfulness. In particular, mindfulness-based stress reduction is a clinically proven way to reduce stress. You can order instruction CDs here.
- Get plenty of sleep. The most powerful approach to improving sleep quality I’m aware of is called the Sounder Sleep system. Order CDs or download MP3s here.
- Enjoy life. Recent studies have indicated that experiencing more pleasure is one of the most potent ways to reduce stress. Listening to music, making love, receiving a massage, taking a walk in the woods, cuddling a pet… all of these activities are highly therapeutic. Watching TV and surfing the Net don’t have the same effect.
- Eat well. Follow these nutritional principles to increase your capacity to handle stress.