When we think of someone who is unhealthy, we usually think of a person who came down with the common cold or flu, not the high school student who is depressed because he or she has no friends and stressed out about college applications and/or upcoming exams. The World Health Organization, defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. This definition suggests that there are three components of health: physical health, mental health and social health. Physical well-being entails being physically fit to perform one’s daily activities optimally. According to Medical News Today, mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual is able to cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and contribute to his or her community. Social well-being implies that a person has the ability to fulfill his or her roles at their workplace, during social activities, and in their relationships. A decline in one of these components of health is often associated with a decline in the others.
Stress affects our health physically, mentally and socially. By examining its effects, we can see how physical, mental and social health are connected. Stress can be defined as a mental or body tension caused by pressures from relationships, financial circumstances, and at work. Stress can be a good thing. It is part of the body’s defense against danger. This defense occurs via the sympathetic nervous system, the part of our nervous system involved in the body’s “fight-or-flight” response. During the response, the body produces stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, which trigger the following changes in our bodies: increased heart rate, reduction in digestion, sweating, etc. These changes help the body respond well in stressful situations. However, this system can become overwhelmed, as it is in chronic stress.
Life changing situations like challenging financial situations, unemployment, chronic disease diagnosis like cancer or the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, can result in stress. If these stressors persist without any relief, it can result in chronic stress. The effects of the pandemic have been broad. There has been changes in workplaces, some individuals have been laid off, and others are experiencing financial difficulties. Whether we have been infected by the coronavirus or not, we all have been affected one way or another. The uncertainty in these times alone can lead to anxiety. The social functioning of many have been disrupted, and such disruption can disrupt mental health and social well-being, making us unable to cope with normal day-to-day stressors and fulfill our roles in our social environment.
Chronic stress also affects physical health. If the body does not take a break from responding to stress, it ends up being overwhelmed by it. Stress hormone levels become higher than normal and other physiological changes persist. The activity of the immune system decreases. Heart rate and blood pressure increase, which is not good for the cardiovascular system if prolonged. If the activity of the immune system decreases, the production of white blood cells decreases. Since white blood cells help us fight against diseases and foreign invaders, our bodies become more prone to infections as their production decreases. Also, chronic stress increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases. According to a Cleveland Clinic article, stress is linked to six of the leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, liver cirrhosis and suicide.
So, if stress can negatively affect all three components of our health, what are the warning signs and how can we manage it? Warning signs of stress include headaches, sleeping problems, tiredness and exhaustion, etc. Having a good social support network can help in managing stress. Exercising regularly, eating healthy and balanced meals, getting 7-8 hours of sleep and reducing caffeine and alcohol intake can help reduce stress.
In addition to doing what we can to slow the spread of the coronavirus — like disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, wearing masks, and washing our hands thoroughly with soap — we must remember that health also includes mental and social well-being. If either of them deteriorates, it affects physical health. It is OK to ask for help; do not be afraid to do so. There is strength in acknowledging that you need help. Talking with friends and family about your problems or concerns can reduce anxiety and help us maintain good health.
Chukwunalu Chukwuma, Wabash College ‘21, is an intern with the Montgomery County Health Department.