Recession Raising Stress Levels in US Workers

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This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Bob Doughty. This week, we will tell about stress and its effects on human health. Stress is a condition resulting from mental or emotional tension. Studies have shown it can reduce the body's ability to fight disease and lead to serious health problems.

Almost two-thirds of American workers say they are struggling or suffering because of stress from the current economic recession. That information comes from a recent opinion study by the Gallup Organization.

Another study found that almost half of American workers expressed concern about their ability to provide for immediate family needs. Not surprisingly, many workers say they are eating or drinking too much, and smoking more as they attempt to deal with money issues.

Stress affects everybody, every day. Stress is how your body reacts to physical, chemical, emotional or environmental influences. Some stress is unavoidable and may even be good for us. Stress can keep our bodies and minds strong. It gives us the push we need to deal with an urgent situation.

But too much stress can be harmful. It may make an existing health problem worse. Or it can lead to sickness if a person is at risk for the condition.

For example, your body reacts to stressful situations by raising your blood pressure and making your heart work harder. This is dangerous if you already have heart disease or high blood pressure. Stress is more likely to be harmful if you feel helpless to deal with the problem or situation that causes the stress.

Anything you see as a problem can cause stress. It can result from everyday situations or major problems. Stress results when something causes your body to act as if it were being attacked.

Causes of stress can be physical, such as injury or disease. Or they can be mental, such as problems involving your family, job, health or finances. Many visits to doctors are for conditions linked to stress.

The tension of stress can interfere with sleep or cause anger or sadness. A person may become more forgetful or find it harder to think clearly. Losing one's sense of humor is another sign of an unhealthy amount of stress.

Stress can lead to other problems if people attempt to ease it by taking drugs, smoking, drinking alcohol or by eating more or less than normal.

Chronic stress lasts a long time or happens often. Chronic stress causes the body to produce too much of two hormones, cortisol and adrenalin. Cortisol is called the "worry" hormone. It is produced when we are afraid. Adrenalin prepares the body to react physically to a threat.

Persons suffering from chronic stress produce too much of these hormones for too long. Too much cortisol and adrenalin can result in physical problems and changes that lead to stress-related sickness.

Cortisol provides high levels of energy during important periods. However, scientists have become concerned about the hormone's long-term effects on our health. Evidence shows that extended periods of cortisol in the body weakens bones, damages nerve cells in the brain and weakens the body's defense system against disease. This makes it easier to get viral and bacterial infections.

Chronic stress has been linked to high blood pressure and heart disease. Studies suggest that people who are easily stressed develop blockages in blood passageways faster than other people.

High stress levels have been found to cause asthma attacks that make it difficult to breathe. Stress is also linked to mental conditions like depression and anxiety disorders. Extended periods of stress have been linked to headaches, difficulty sleeping, stomach problems and skin disorders.

Studies also show that chronic stress reduces the levels of the hormone estrogen in women. This might put some women at greater risk for heart disease or the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis.

A recent study found that emotional stress may put some older adults at risk of falls and broken bones. Swedish researchers studied one hundred thirty-seven older adults who suffered bone fractures after falling. The patients were questioned at two hospitals.

The study found that the patients' risk of suffering a fall was higher for up to one hour after emotional stress. Sadness increased the risk nearly six percent compared to periods with no such feelings. For anger, there was an increased risk of more than twelve percent. And, stress increased the risk of falling by about twenty percent.

Mental and health experts believe personality is an important part in how we experience stress. Personality is the way a person acts, feels and thinks. Many things influence a person's personality, including genetics and experience.

Some people, for example, are aggressive and always in a hurry. They often become angry when things do not happen the way they planned. They are called Type A personalities. Studies suggest that these people often get stress-related illnesses.

The Type B personality is calmer. These people are able to deal with all kinds of situations more easily. As a result, they are less affected by stress.

Studies have shown that men and women deal with stress differently. Women usually have stronger social support systems to help them in times of trouble. These social supports may help explain why many women seem to be better able to deal with stress than men are. However, experts say women are three times more likely to develop depression in reaction to the stress in their lives.

American writer John Gray became famous for his book, "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus." The book explored the effect of biological differences between men and women on their personal relationships.

Mr. Gray says one major difference is the way people react to the hormone testosterone. The body releases this hormone to deal with stressful situations. Mr. Gray says studies have linked a rise in testosterone levels to reduced stress in men. But high testosterone levels have no such effect on women.

He notes that men and women have opposite ways of dealing with stress. For a man, the best way is to rest and forget about daily problems. But a woman suffering from stress needs to talk about her problems. Talking leads to the release of the brain hormone oxytocin, which lowers her stress levels.

Experts say there are several ways to deal with stress. They include deep breathing and a method of guided thought called meditation.

They also include exercise, eating healthy foods, getting enough rest and balancing the time spent working and playing. Doctors say people should limit the amounts of alcohol and caffeine in their diets. People who have many drinks with caffeine, like coffee, experience more stress and produce more stress hormones.

Experts say exercise is one of the most effective stress-reduction measures. Running, walking or playing sports causes physical changes that make you feel better. Exercise also improves the body's defense system against disease. And studies have found that it helps protect against a decrease in mental ability.

Doctors say deep, slow breathing is also helpful. And many medical studies have shown that clearing the mind through quiet meditation helps you become calm. This causes lower blood pressure, reduced muscle tension and decreased heart rate.

Experts also say keeping stress to yourself can make problems worse. Researchers have linked the failure to identify and express emotions to many health conditions. These include eating disorders, fear disorders and high blood pressure.

They say expressing emotions to friends or family members or writing down your feelings can help reduce stress. Experts say people should attempt to accept or change stressful situations whenever possible.

Judith Orloff is a mental health expert at the University of California at Los Angeles. She wrote a book called "Emotional Freedom" that deals directly with Americans' economic fears. Doctor Orloff advises workers not to worry about things they cannot control. Instead, she urges them to think about the one thing that most concerns them, and to deal with it.

SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by George Grow. Our producer was Brianna Blake. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Bob Doughty. Join us again next week for more news about science in VOA Special English.

Voice of America Special English

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