The Effects of Stress: Stress is Harmful


The effects of stress are felt by individuals and by society and industry. On other pages on this site I look at stress, its causes, and possible methods of stress management, but this page is devoted entirely to the effects of stress. What effect does stress have on individuals? What are the effects for society and industry?

How does stress cause illness?

When we experience a situation in which we feel threatened (any situation, whether real or imagined that can make us feel threatened), then the body responds by releasing hormones (adrenalin and cortisol) that lead to a variety of physical changes that prepare the body for action: raised heart rate; muscles feel tightened; blood moves to muscle tissue (and away from the skin, which is why scared people go pale!).

Let’s put a bit of detail on to that!

The mechanism by which stress leads to illness is controlled by something in the body known as the HPA axis. (HPA stands for ‘hypothalamus – pituitary – adrenal’.) When the mind (either consciously or sub-consciously) perceives something as threatening, this is registered in the brain by the hypothalamus. [For those of you who want the minute detail – it seems that nerve cells (neurones) with cell bodies in the paraventricular nuclei are those involved in this part of the reaction. These cells secrete corticotropin-releasing factor.]

The hypothalamus then sends a signal (a chemical messenger called corticotrophin releasing factor) to the pituitary gland. (The hypothalamus also releases another hormone, called arginine-vasopressin, also called vasopressin, but more about that later!) The pituitary, which sits just under the brain, responds by sending a signal (a chemical messenger called adrenocorticotrophic hormone) into the blood. This hormone finds its way to the adrenal glands (just above the kidneys) where it causes the release of the ‘fight or flight’ hormones: adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. These hormones prepare the body for fight or flight by diverting energy and blood away from those areas where it is less necessary (such as the digestive tract, or the skin) to those areas where it is more necessary (such as the heart and the leg muscles), so that the body is temporarily made ready to fight, or flee.

The major effects of these changes are: increase in blood pressure; increase in heart rate; reduction in gastrointestinal activity. One other major body system is acutely affected by adrenal hormones – the immune system. During a ‘fight or flight episode,’ the adrenal hormones directly suppress the immune system in order to conserve energy. All of this process is fine when we have a temporary need to confront or flee from a sabre-toothed tiger (or knife-wielding mugger!), but 21st-century stress causes this process to be permanently active. We may perceive many things as threatening; from conflict with our manager to unreasonable demands at work; from financial worries, to relationship difficulties. These things cause the activation of the HPA axis – persistently and for prolonged periods, leading inevitably to physical illness: heart disease; strokes; and more infections because of the suppressed immune system.

So what does arginine vasopressin do? (Remember it from a couple of paragraphs ago?) The hypothalamus actually secretes a precursor to vasopressin, which is stored in vesicles in the posterior pituitary. When a stressful event is experienced, the vasopressin is released into the bloodstream. But what does vasopressin do? It does two main things, both of which lead to the same thing – raised blood pressure. Vasopressin causes water to be reabsorbed by the kidneys, which leads to an increase n the body’s total water volume, which raises blood pressure. Vasopressin also causes the arteries and arterioles (the small arteries) to constrict, this causes what’s known as raised peripheral vascular resistance, which, causes raised blood pressure.

Chronic stress has also been shown to reduce the secretion of growth hormone by the pituitary gland. Growth hormone is responsible for two things (in simple terms!) – stimulating growth, and stimulating cell repair and regeneration. So, by reducing stimulation of growth, stress can cause impairment of developmental growth in children (as demonstrated in children from home environments involving marital discord, child abuse, and alcohol or drug misuse). In adults, growth hormone is mostly secreted at night and helps the repair and regeneration process. If I just list some of the things that growth hormone does, you can get some idea of why a reduction in growth hormone can cause damage! Growth hormone: strengthens and increases bone; increases muscle mass; increases protein synthesis; stimulates growth of internal organs; stimulates the immune system.

So here is the complete list of physical effects caused by continuous and unrelieved activation of the stress mechanisms: increased infections because of the reduced functioning of the immune system; raised blood pressure, which can lead to kidney damage, heart disease, stroke, and eye damage; impaired growth in children and impaired cell repair and tissue regeneration in adults, leading to weakened bones, muscle wastage, and shrinking organs. That’s a long list of effects of stress! It is not surprising that stress reduction has become so important for people, and that the stress management market has become so large!

Effects of stress on the individual

So, I’ve outlined what stress does to the body and to the mind. But what does that mean for individuals? How do people experience the effects of stress? Well, individual people may experience both physical and psychological effects of stress.

Here are some of the recognizable physical effects of stress: • Increased sweating;• Muscle cramps;• Nail biting (increased in a person that does so already!);• Breathlessness;• Chest pains or feelings of pressure around the solar plexus;• Constipation or diarrhoea;• Dizziness or fainting spells;• Pins and needles in the fingers;• Erectile dysfunction;• Sleep disturbance.

And here are some of the recognizable psychological effects of stress:• Anger;• Depression;• Anxiety;• Changes in behaviour;• Food cravings;• Difficulty concentrating;• Loss of sense of humour;• Irritability;• Constant tiredness;• Poor judgement;• Negative thoughts;• Moodiness;• Agitation;• Feelings of being overwhelmed;• Feelings of isolation.

Two long lists of the effects of stress! Stress clearly causes a lot of harm, and it is therefore very important that if you are experiencing stress, that you find techniques to help with stress reduction.

Effects of stress for society and industry

For individual organisations, the effects of stress are also varied and extensive: increasing errors and faulty judgements in the workplace; work quality can be reduced; staff turnover is increased (leading to disruption within teams, and extra work involved in recruitment and training; customer service may suffer, leading to reduced income for the business. I could go on, but I’m sure you’re getting the message that stress can be very harmful to commercial enterprises. As you would expect, there is also a financial cost to organisations due to stress.

It’s difficult to get a definitive figure for the effects of stress on society and industry, because there are a number of aspects that could be measured: costs to health services and health insurers; cost to employers of absenteeism; cost in lost revenues to employees; cost to governments of lost tax revenues; numbers of days lost; effects on employees who remain at work while colleagues are sick due to stress; cost to school pupils due to teachers’ stress. Here are a few figures to give you some idea of the scale of the problem:

A recent survey carried out in the UK the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggests that over 105 million working days are lost each year due to stress, at a cost to UK industry of over £1.2 billion! The survey also showed that 11% of sickness absence is due to stress; 60% of employers think stress is damaging staff retention, and 83% of employers think stress is damaging productivity!

The CBI (the leading ‘employers organisation’ in the UK) has estimated that stress creates a cost of about £4 billion each year to industry.

Another recent survey suggests that sickness amongst National Health Service staff in the UK cost about £1.7 billion each year and that about 25% of that is due to stress. It was suggested that stress accounts for about 2.5 million working days lost each year!

However, you look at it – stress is creating a lot of problems! The effects of stress are felt by individuals and organisations alike.