According to a recent American Psychological Association poll, nearly a quarter of Americans confessed to currently feeling under “extreme stress.” Respondents especially blamed money, work, and the economy—a feeling 50-year-old Sue Wasserman knows all too well. In February, the public relations manager left Atlanta after her job was eliminated by a corporate restructuring and took a new post in Asheville, N.C. When that proved a bad fit, she struck out on her own as a freelance writer and publicist. Though Wasserman is thrilled some days to be living near the Blue Ridge Mountains, the uncertainty of her income overwhelms her. “There’s a sense of foreboding—of ‘What did I just do?’ ” she says.
Short periods of tension can actually be beneficial to people, sharpening thinking and heightening physical response in situations where performance counts, such as business meetings or athletic competitions. But experts are clear that when individuals are routinely under assault—over money, health woes, a daily freeway commute, whatever—a biological system that was designed to occasionally fight or flee a predator gets markedly out of balance. “The body’s delicate feedback system starts to malfunction,” says David Spiegel, director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University.
Stress has been found to play a role in so many diseases of modern life—from asthma, depression, and migraine flares to heart attacks, cancer, and diabetes—that it likely accounts for more than half of the country’s healthcare-related expenses, says George Chrousos, a distinguished visiting scientist at the National Institutes of Health. In March, Chrousos spearheaded a conference on “The Profound Impact of Stress” in Washington, D.C., to educate policymakers and the public.
For decades, researchers have worked to unlock the scientific puzzle of how stress pervades and influences so many organ systems. In recent years, with an improved knowledge of biology and advanced laboratory techniques, they have produced a picture that identifies many more complex, and longer-lasting, effects than were previously understood.