Where It Comes From
Here’s what stress isn’t. It’s not a pile of work, a flat tire, a sick child, or any other situation that may distract us. Those are stressors. Stress is the way we perceive a situation and react to it.
A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Public Health revealed that women have a higher risk of experiencing stress-related health problems. Black American women, in particular, are more vulnerable to the effects of race-related stress versus their white or male peers. These findings have been consistent, based on concepts proving that gender and racial prejudice are among the leading chronic stressors.
Black women living in urban areas reported a higher number of traumatic life events as stressors (crime, divorce, job loss, etc.). It should come as no surprise that socioeconomic conditions are contributors to the differences in one’s health status.
Breaking It Down
Stress affects every woman differently; one woman’s migraine may be another woman’s sprint to the vending machine. Our hormones play a huge role in regulating sexual function and development, metabolism, and the body's growth. With all the hormones involved in stress, continued exposure can lead to serious health complications. Here are the areas in which stress can have a negative impact on your health.
Heart - Chronic stress exposes the body to raised levels of cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. One study conducted by African
Health Sciences concluded that high levels of cortisol and adrenaline increases blood cholesterol, triglycerides, and high blood pressure. If left untreated over time, these disorders can damage your arteries - increasing your risk of having a stroke or heart attack.
Muscular system - If we’re going to fight or flee, we need ready muscles! Muscle tension is merely a reflex reaction to stress. This is why our necks and backs tense up when we are hit with stressors. If those muscles don’t eventually loosen, we are left with sore backs, shoulders, and necks accompanied by a headache that pounds hard enough to wake the neighbors.
Body shape - The more stressed we are, the more likely we are to put on weight around our midsection. In a study conducted by the Department of Psychology at Yale University, it was concluded that chronic stress and abdominal fat distribution were interconnected.
Digestive system - You know those butterflies you feel just before a roller-coaster ride begins? Those pale in comparison to suffering from a digestive disorder caused by stress. Even though doctors no longer think stress causes peptic ulcers, stress can often make them worse.
Then there’s irritable bowel syndrome. According to a published article in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, IBS occurs as a result due to disturbances in the balance between the gut and the brain. With this affliction, the small and large intestines, which normally work in a coordinated cadence, start behaving erratically. Depending on which area reacts to the stress, you may experience diarrhea, constipation, cramping, and bloating.
Endocrine system - Endocrine function can be affected by chronic stress. The cells in our body use glucose and fatty acids for energy. This causes the body to deliver insulin (a hormone made by the pancreas which is designed to siphon the glucose out of our bloodstream). If too much of it is produced, our cells may eventually lose their ability to respond to the hormone - which is a major risk factor for diabetes.
Immune system - Our bodies’ natural defense systems constantly protect us from invaders such as viruses that cause the common cold. However, chronic stress weakens this shield, making us more susceptible to disease.
Emotions - Chronic stressors can lower the levels of chemical transmitters in our brain according to a Harvard review. This can play havoc with our memory - which may be why the little details in life become so difficult to remember.
Longevity - In addition to everything else, too much stress can affect our life expectancy. And since highly stressed people produces higher levels of cortisol and tend to engage in unhealthy habits, this feeds into and compounds the other physical and mental effects of stress.
In conclusion, if the negative health effects of chronic stress are so well-known, why does it seem that nearly every black woman you know is stressed?
One word: Life.
Valerie lives in New York. As a health advocate, she shares tips and steps on maximizing nutrition, weight, and fitness goals to help others embrace a healthier lifestyle. She blogs at Halfmile Fitness.