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Negativity and Your Health

How Stress Can Make You Sick

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Updated March 21, 2006

The following is an excerpt from the book In Control by Redford Williams, MD, and Virginia Williams, PhD
Published by Rodale; February 2006;$24.95US/$33.95CAN; 1-59486-256-7
Copyright © 2006 Redford Williams, MD, and Virginia Williams, PhD

Hostility isn't the only negative trait that can have an impact on people's health. Behavioral medicine research has identified a number of other risk factors with a definite link to serious health problems.

Depression. The negative impact of depression also increases the risk of developing coronary heart disease, and people who are depressed after having a heart attack are more likely to die within the following 6 months. Several studies have shown that patients with any disease -- diabetes is one example -- who are depressed end up needing more medical care, accounting for a disproportionate amount of medical costs.

Lack of adequate social support. People who have little support -- whether it's help with chores at home or someone to listen sympathetically -- are also more at risk. Social support acts as a buffer that enables people to cope better with whatever stresses they face, whether they're imposed by personality or life situations. Support is a function of both the person and the environment. Those of us who have a cynical mistrust of others are less likely to reach out for support, and some of us find ourselves in situations that simply don't include people who can be sources of support.

Stressful environments. Jobs that impose high demands for output of services or products but allow workers little control over how those demands are met have been termed high-strain jobs. Psychologists Robert Karasek, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts, and Tores Theorell, MD, PhD, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, have documented that people working in high-strain jobs are more likely to develop high blood pressure, infections, and job-related injuries, as well as heart disease.

Risky behaviors. People who are hostile, depressed, isolated, or in stressful life situations are more likely to overeat, smoke, and abuse alcohol.

Studies show that these different risk factors often cluster in the same individual. For example, in a study of working women, Redford and his colleagues found that those who reported high job strain were also more depressed, hostile, and socially isolated. As in people with high levels of hostility, these other psychosocial risk factors are associated with changes in biological functions, such as increases in adrenaline and cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate surges, higher cholesterol levels, and alterations in the immune system and blood-clotting mechanisms. All of these changes are felt to lead to disease.

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