Tag Archives: stress

Depression And Allergies

pollen

More and more, researchers are starting to see a connection between allergies and depression. There is evidence of relationships in both directions, so allergies exacerbate depression, while depressive symptoms and affect make allergy symptoms worse. One study found that this connection is partly responsible for an uptick in suicides as winter turns into spring. Part of this is a hope that depression is merely seasonal being dashed—people tough it out through the winter but go into a decline when spring doesn’t bring improvement—but now it appears that allergens increasing in the springtime also bears on this phenomenon.

Depression is thought of as a mental illness, but the brain is part of the body, and there’s no bright line, medically speaking, between physical symptoms and mental ones. One place where this is apparent is allergic reactions causing depressive symptoms. Allergens are normally harmless substances, such as pollen, that trigger an immune response in people who are sensitive to them. Part of this immune response is inflammation. Inflammation can lead to a low feeling called dysthymia; this is why people who are sick feel awful. Dysthymia is also a symptom of depression. Some scientists have proposed that a hitherto underestimated cause of depression itself is inflammation due to allergy.

Meanwhile, stress is both a cause and an effect of depression. Depression can be a response, in part, to stress, but t can also increase it. Stress is also intimately bound up with the immune system The stress hormone cortisol temporarily suppresses the immune system, only for it to come back turned up after the stressor has passed. That means that stress, anxiety, and depression actually make allergic reactions worse, particularly on the second day. That means not only does stress directly lead to depression, it also increases depression as a result o the inflammation from an allergy attack.

In children, scientists have also found a genetic link between allergies and depression, as well as behavioral problems. While allergies themselves exacerbate depression, and allergies and depression alike are partly responsible for children misbehaving, there is evidence that genetics is behind a predisposition to allergies, a predisposition to depression, and a tendency to act out.

New Year’s Resolution: Stress Less

stress

After the busyness and pressure of the holiday season, it’s not surprising many people are determined to conquer stress when the time to make New Year’s resolutions rolls around. It’s a good idea regardless. Stress can contribute to heart disease, by increasing the heart-rate and raising blood pressure. It worsens asthma symptoms, and the children of a stressed person have a higher risk of developing asthma in the first place—to say nothing of the fact that stressed-out people are likely to be heavier smokers and create an environment with secondhand smoke. It leads to obesity, again both directly and indirectly through association with poor eating habits.

However, managing stress presents some obstacles. A certain amount of stress is fundamentally external, meaning it comes from other people whose actions the person experiencing stress cannot control. However, there are things that can be done to reduce the impact. Smiling more can help. Just as being happy makes people smile, smiling has been shown to make people happier, and less stressed. More broadly, keeping an optimistic outlook on life trying to can help make someone more mellow and chill. Spending time with friends, and building a friend network generally, can help mitigate stress by reducing feeling of isolation. Cutting back on caffeine can have a calming effect as well.

Sometimes, people make New Year’s resolutions that are not themselves about stress, but that can support stress reduction, whether or not that is an intended outcome. Some people may decide that this will be the year they meditate more, or do yoga, or even simply carve out time for themselves. All of these things are good for relaxing and reducing stress levels. Exercise is another common resolution with a calming effect on people. A good workout burns off adrenaline and gives a person the opportunity to get out aggressions. Spending less money, another common resolution, can lessen or eliminate a major cause of stress.

Other resolutions can hurt the cause. Things like eating better, quitting smoking, or cutting back or giving up alcohol all mean lower stress levels in the long run, but trying to do these things simultaneously with reducing stress is a recipe for disaster. Smoking, drinking, and eating comfort foods—which are not always especially healthy—are all helpful in momentary, temporary destressing, and the last two in particular may actually be helpful as temporary coping methods while building a long-term strategy that is healthier.

Addressing Holiday Stress

wreath

Holiday time is a time for gathering and celebrating with loved ones, but for many, the joys of the season are not unmixed. Whether hosting or visiting, or a little of both, gatherings at this time of year can bring stress and worry. Add in the heightened expectations, the frantic preparations, and the multiple responsibilities, and it all ends up anything but a storybook celebration. The constant barrage of parties and holiday activity can take a toll on anyone. Despite the joy of the season, tempers often flare as people find themselves with seemingly too much to do and not nearly enough time to do it in or energy to do it with.

For many people, family is a source of stress. Even in happy families, the rush and confusion of holiday preparations can shorten tempers and stretch nerves. On top of that, far flung families—either living in different places or simply people who don’t talk to each other a lot—get together this time of year, and that means logistics of travel, as well as arguments and disagreements that can be suppressed during the year come ti the surface. More complex families have conflict about who’s spending time where. Even friends can have delicate balancing acts to walk this time of year.

So how to deal with this stress? One way is to simplify. There are always traditional dishes, but not everything on the holiday table needs to be made from scratch, and the traditional dishes don’t need to be made by the host. In fact, "have to"s should be kept to a minimum overall, though there will be some. Spread visits to family and friends as much as possible to avoid being overwhelmed, perhaps seeing people the weekend or evening before the holiday, or the day after.

Not every source of tress during the holidays is family. Indeed, for some people, loneliness is the problem. Holiday time is when expectation are highest, and when being alone is perhaps most keenly felt. This may be a time to avoid social media—while people are entitled to their happy holidays, someone who is alone may not want to watch. It’s also a time for self care. Being alone during the holidays means not having to have anyone else’s idea of a proper celebration.

Thanksgiving

thanksgiving

Thursday will be Thanksgiving in the United States. It’s time for celebrating with family, but for many people, it’s also a time for stress. In some cases, the stress is something that can be dealt with. It may for example, be the result of comparing one’s own gathering with a hypothetical, Norman Rockwell ideal family, even though the ideal family is vanishingly rare outside of paintings. Another source is dread of a fight at the dinner table. People don’t suddenly change on Thanksgiving, so expectation management—being aware that people will be pretty much the way they always are—will go a long way towards keeping calm.

On a more basic level, avoiding holiday stress means minimizing holiday stressors. One of the biggest things people worry about is forgetting something, and one way to avoid that is to make lists of everything. Even things that would seem so obvious that there’s no possible way to forget them should go on the list. That means the list is made when there’s time to sit down and think about it, and then when things are rushed, it is necessary only to follow it.

Thanksgiving is also a time of eating. The typical Thanksgiving meal is five or six times the size of a normal meal. Indeed, this, more than the tryptophan in the turkey, is responsible for the sleepiness many people feel after Thanksgiving dinner—the body is devoting much of its energy to processing all that food, and many people have alcohol as well. Of course, the occasional blow-out isn’t bad—while no one should eat a holiday dinner every night, a few times a year on special occasions is unlikely to do any lasting harm.

Some Thanksgiving foods can even be beneficial. Cranberry sauce, for example, contains a substance that can destroy the plaque responsible for tooth decay, as does red wine. Cranberries are also a good source of antioxidants, which can protect the body from some types of cancer. Turkey has selenium and other necessary nutrients, and if based in broth or wine, it’s low in saturated fat. In addition, the vegetables provide important nutrients even when incorporated into dressing or other rich holiday side dishes. Even gravy provides some health benefits.

Yoga For Health

yoga

More and more Americans are discovering the benefits of yoga. In fact, more than 20 million Americans include yoga in their exercise regimen. Though it developed from a spiritual practice in Hinduism, modern yoga as a form of exercise is entirely secularized; in many cases, the only real sign of it origins is that the positions are named in Hindi. Whatever the spiritual effects, yoga has important benefits for physical health. Yoga has been shown to help strength, mobility, and energy levels. People who do yoga report better sleep and less food cravings. There is evidence it helps alleviate chronic lower back pain, and it may even help ward off type 2 diabetes.

Yoga also helps lower stress levels and improve mood. Even prisoners, in what is inherently a high-stress environment, were shown to benefit from yoga—and for them, less stress means better self-control, which, if they are able to maintain it, means they are less likely to re-offend once released. In another study, yoga was shown to reduce anxiety in the broader population as well. Yoga boosts levels of a brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, which tends to be in short supply in people with depression, anxiety, or similar issues. People who practice yoga have higher GABA levels and showed less anxiety

Other groups also benefit from reduced stress. People undergoing radiation therapy for breast cancer often experience fatigue as a result of the treatment. Yoga helps fight that fatigue. In addition, research has found that, in part due to stress reduction, patients who do yoga find that it improves their quality of life. Radiotherapy patients who do yoga report more energy, better ability to live more normal lives, and better overall health. Patients even reported more of a sense of well-being after treatment if they had done yoga during the treatment than if they had not.

Yoga also has been shown to benefit seniors. One study found that when people over 55 practice a form of yoga called hatha three times a week, it boosts their cognitive ability, including ability to focus. Post-menopausal women in a different study reported sleeping better, with the practice of yoga helping with the insomnia that can come with age.

Not Just Shell-Shock

ptsd

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is diagnosed from symptoms occuring after a traumatic event. Those symptoms generally relate to the event—recurring memories and flashbacks, avoiding discussing the event, or people and places assoiated with it, upsetting dreams. Other symptoms include irritability, despair, trouble sleeping, and emotional withdrawal. Symptoms usually start within a few months of the initial trauma, but sometimes can come years later. These symptoms can have repercussions; PTSD sufferers have substantially higher rates of divorce, unemployment, homelessness, and subtance abuse, and the substance abuse—occurring in more than a quarter of women and more than half of men with PTSD—exacerbates the other problems still further.

The condition is common among war veterans, but there are a lot of other traumas that can lead to PTSD. More than 12 percent of residents of lower Manhattan were found to have PTSD in the wake of 9/11, for example, in line with statistics showing as many as one-seventh of people who’ve been through some sort of trauma will deveop it. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, people are more likely to develop PTSD if they were seriously hurt during a truamtic event, were directly in danger, felt helpless during the event, or had a severe reaction during the event, such as crying, shaking, vomiting, or dissociating from their surroundings. Long-lasting trauma, such as bullying (including on-line bullying), is also more likely to lead to the disorder.

Since so much of PTSD is tied to the memory of the event, one treatment technique that has been suggested is to diminish that memory. A drug has been found that, in combination with behavioral therapy, may be able to weaken memories of traumatic events if used shortly after the trauma occurs. Cognitive-brhavioral therapy is effective as a preventative measure, as well as in treatment, on its own. Exposure therapy, in which patients are deliberately triggered in a safe, supportive, and controlled environment can help in some cases when administered with professional guidance, though deliberately triggering PTSD without the patient agreeing in advance is likely to do more harm than good. Debriefing, allowing someone who has been part of a traumatic event to discuss and confront their response to it, was thought to be helpful in preventing its development, but research suggests it is not.

Gut Feelings

Stress

Irritable bowel syndrome is a term for a constellation of symptoms, primarily abdominal pain and discomfort, diarrhea or constipation, and bloating that may be so severe as to result in distension, a visible swelling in the abdomen. These symptoms strike about 15 percent of Americans, two-thirds of them women. Three in five of these people, according to some studies, have anxiety, depression, or similar psychological issues, and many also have additional physical effects of the bowel disease, such as a form of severe heartburn known as gastroesophageal reflux.

Now research suggests that for many irritable bowel patients, those psychological effects are actually a bigger deal than whats going on on their guts. The researchers say they found that when irritable bowel patients are asked about their own assessment of their condition, the biggest factors influencing their answers are not the severity of the disease itself, but the patients mental state, social relationships, energy levels, other medical problems, and other non-gastrointestinal issues.

"Our findings suggest that in IBS patients and possibly patients with other diseases as well, health perceptions depend to a much larger extent on non-biomedical factors than those of us who are health care providers have ever suspected," Jeffrey Lackner, PsyD, an associate professor of medicine in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences who led the study, said in a statement.

It’s not clear what causes irritable bowel syndrome to develop, though it does tend to run in families. Scientists recently found a genetic defect that disrupts bowel function in a way that leads to irritation. This doesn’t cause all cases of the condition, but it does explain some. Others may be accounted for by any of a number of factors. Stress may trigger flare-ups, if not gradually create the conditions for them to occur. In addition, low serotonin levels are associated with irritable bowel as both cause and effect.

One way to fight irritable bowel syndrome is with diet. Probiotics, as supplements or in foods such as yogurt, can help reduce or eliminate symptoms and foster the growth of what are called gut microflora, beneficial bacteria lining the stomach that are important for digestive health.

The Complexities Of Oxytocin

Oxytocin

It’s called the love hormone, but oxytocin isn’t that, exactly. It is heavily involved in the mental processes behind both maternal and romantic bonding, but it’s also involved in a broad and diverse spectrum of human mental and emotional activities, including labor and childbirth, sexual response, wound healing, social behavior, stress reduction, trust, and generosity. Some scientists even think the hormone can, paradoxically, have the opposite effect, promoting racist attitudes by drawing groups closer together and uniting them against perceived outsiders.

That aside, due to the importance of oxytocin in social functioning, there has been some investigation of the therapeutic use of the hormone in helping people with autism better adjust to the outside world. In a recent study, autistic children who received oxytocin showed improvement in emotional understanding and performed better on social tasks. Oxytocin also boosted what psychologists call "social attunement," meaning the capacity to recognize situations in which social interaction is necessary and to behave accordingly.

Synthetic oxytocin has several therapeutic uses already. As an injection, oxytocin is sometimes administered to women undergoing difficult labor, to help in that process or to help stimulate contractions and minimize bleeding. Nursing mothers are sometimes given oxytocin as an injection or nasal spray to improve lactation. In addition, people with anxiety can sometimes benefit from oxytocin nasal spray in difficult situations.

On the other hand, too much oxytocin is also a danger. In addition to strengthening the sometimes undesirable ingroup/outgroup dichotomy, the boost to social reasoning skills, especially in people who don’t have any sort of prior deficit in that area, can lead to an oversensitivity to the emotional states of other people. In particular, people with too much oxytocin—generally as a result of being administered a dose of synthetic hormone, rather than an excess being produced by the brain itself—overreact to emotional cues and may tend to over-interpret them, reading between the lines unnecessarily.

Low Impact But Highly Effective Exercise

taichi

Almost everyone would benefit from getting more exercise. Lack of exercise is a risk factor for almost every type of preventable illness, particularly diabetes, stroke, and heart disease. However, exercise itself can be a strain for many people. Low-impact tai chi is a gentler form of exercise, one which can be done by people who are very young, old, or in poor health as long as they’re mobile and which requires very little in the way of space and no special equipment, but it has been found to have mental and emotional as well as physical benefits.

In one study, tai chi was more beneficial than walking for lower-body strength, and improved arm strength almost as much as weight training. It helps reduce pain and fatigue in people with certain chronic conditions, it has demonstrated emotional benefits, and it helps immunity. It also helps practitioners fight insomnia and get more restful sleep—all without requiring someone to break a sweat.

Recently, tai chi has been found to be useful for people with several specific conditions. Fibromyalgia sufferers often have a hard time getting proper treatment. Fibromyalgia is a difficult condition to pin down to a cause, and is often overlooked by medical professionals entirely, and so treatment is hard to get and to calibrate. People with fibromyalgia who practice tai chi, however, report less pain and more energy, benefits which continued for quite some time after the patients stopped doing the exercises. That means tai chi has achieved better results than medical interventions for fibromyalgia.

People with identified neurological deficits or issues also have reasons to look in to tai chi training. People with Parkinson’s disease, for example, are often prone to depression—over half of all people with Parkinson’s have been diagnosed with clinical depression as well. Exercise can help stave it off, but because of the condition’s effects on motor skills, many exercise programs are difficult. Tai chi, however, is more accessible to people with mobility issues Stroke survivors, too, can benefit from tai chi. People who have had strokes are seven times as likely to fall as the general population, but tai chi can help restore balance.

On PTSD

ptsd

Post-traumatic stress disorder is something many people associate with soldiers, or with someone who has been the victim of a violent crime. However, any traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, can cause PTSD symptoms. PTSD is an exaggeration and extension of the body’s and mind’s typical—and normally healthy and beneficial—response to the perception of being in danger.

Any danger can be behind this heightened response in someone who is already prone to it. There is a genetic component to a person’s tendency to develop post-traumatic stress. In fact, new research points to the existence of genetic memories. Some traumatic experiences, the scientists learned, result in changes to DNA that are passed down to future generations. These inherited anxieties and fears are associated with the response to trauma.

Neurochemistry and the structure of the brain also plays a role. A part of the brain called the amygdala plays an important role in acquiring fear and also comes into play in unlearning fears. Different people have different amygdalar responses to the same stimulus. The way the amygdala responds to stressful situations is the difference between developing post-traumatic stress and not. However, the differences are in the range of stresses leading to PTSD—sufficient stress will lead to the condition even in low-susceptibility people.

That is why prevention is important even in people who give no indication of being susceptible but who have experienced trauma. Anti-stress and anti-anxiety medications, for example, can help prevent trauma from leading to long-term disorder or reduce the severity. Drugs called alpha-adrenergic agonists and beta blockers lower stress symptoms and the feeling of stress, while other types of medication, called glucocorticoids, interact directly with the stress hormone cortisol. A type of antihistamine was recently found to have the important property of selectively preventing negative memories from forming, while neutral and positive memories were unaffected. Administered after a traumatic event, this drug may be able to help reduce the response, and the stress.