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Stress in Disease

The Role of Stress in Disease


While disease is the result of multiple interrelated factors according it has long been know that there is a very strong relationship between stress and disease.  According to Korn and Johnson, almost all disease is stress related, “Because it tends to leave us ….. in a situation that is vulnerable to the development of a disease.”  (p30) 


In part, this is the result of human evolution.  In more primitive times, stressful events and their boundaries were more easily defined and recognised. So, when a stressful event was completed, (eg being chased by an animal), we could then commence the recovery process.  However, boundaries on many stressful events are more obscure (eg guilt, shame, remorse) and we can be thrust into a continual process of coping and many of us have not yet developed exit points and escape routes (eg meditation).  This can lead to a downward spiral of exhaustion of resources.



This occurs because the diencephalic portion of the brain reacts to threats (or perceived threats) by activating basic instincts.  The cortical portions of the brain then interprets these instincts as behaving abnormally and provide this information as feedback to the diencephalic portion of the brain.  The diencephalic portion of the brain interprets this as a threat and so the process continues – our tension moves to hypertension and many of our internal resources are depleted.dd2)

We are now in a vulnerable state and have created a fertile environment for the development of disease.


The relationships between stress and disease is constantly on display to us – ranging from the examples we see in the workplace to the results of studies in personality types (eg Freedman and Rosenman), impacts of society (eg Holmes and Rahn) and even mice.


Workplace and daily life


How many times have we seen people pushing too hard, worried about deadlines or problems, and eventually becoming sick.  Thankfully, most often this sickness is just on call from our weakest link (eg a cold, ulcers, stomach upsets) telling us to slow down.  Our weak link acts as our canary in mines.  This, at least gives us defined boundaries, which say you need to change what you are doing to reduce the stress on your body.


Also, many times we see people that have battled to make deadlines, become sick immediately after the deadline passes.  It is almost as if the body has said, “You promised me some time out when we reached Friday.  Now I am going to make sure we take it.  I’ll make you have a cold or ulcers, etc, just to make sure we rest.”


Now imagine this situation when there is no message for the weak link and this stress just keeps building and building and feeds on itself. 


Current medical management of stress is built very much around prescription of tranquilizers.  Blackwell (Korn & Johnson, p33) alerts us to the fact that, “in 1972, 144 million prescriptions were written for psychotropic drugs. Half of these were accounted for by two minor tranquilizers, Librium and Valium”.  In his book Toxic Psychiatry, Peter Breggin, warns us that the particular drugs may have changed but the general philosophy of treatment has not, when he writes  “Among psychiatric medications for the treatment of anxiety, the most commonly used are the minor tranquilizers, starting in 1957 with the introduction of Librium (chlordiazepoxide). In the 1970s the minor tranquilizer Valium (diazepam) topped the charts as the most widely prescribed drug in America, to be replaced by Xanax in 1986. Most of the minor tranquilizers belong to the group called benzodiazepines and are closely related chemically to Librium, Valium, and Xanax”( Toxic Psychiatry by Peter R. Breggin, 1994 by St. Martin's Press M.D. as quoted on his internet site


Unfortunately the use of drugs is an attack on the symptoms but does little or nothing to treat the cause and thus break the stress cycle but instead brings with it an array of side effects.  “Their (drug) addiction potential poses grave dangers, and they negate the basic value of the stress response as a survival learning mechanism.” (Korn and Johnson, p34).


A guide to a more effective approach to the treatment of stress was provide by Hans Selye, who in 1978 coined the term G.A.S. (General Adaptive Syndrome) to describe the process by which we “attempt to cope with “nonspecific” stress – as opposed to short duration stresses such as injury, the flu, momentary fear.” (As quoted in Alman & Lambrou p100). 


According to Alman & Lambrou G.A.S has 3 stages.

(1)   Alarm reaction

(2)   Period of resistance

(3)   Exhaustion


The body’s immune system is subject to break down during stages 2 & 3.  The first warning signal is likely to come from the body’s weak link.  This indicates that a holistic program is required to support and strengthen the immune system as well as working to reduce the impact of things that worked against the immune system. The holistic approach would pay attention to issues such as diet, exercise and rest, as well as the provision of powerful mental tools utilizing altered states of consciousness and post hypnotic suggestion.  According to Korn and Johnson (p34) high on the agenda of mental tools would be the Relaxation Response.  The Relaxation Response effectively provides an exit loop for the fight or flight response.




Korn & Johnson go on to point out that 10 to 20 minutes (p35) of experience with relaxation response once a day is an appropriate stress release.  They explain the reason for this is that “most of us, exposed to numerous stresses over a long period of time, experience a gradual elevation in the stress threshold, or basal level, until we reach a point at which the body can no longer adapt.  At that point we experience illness”  (p 36).  However, when we experience the relaxation response, we release currently accumulated stressors.


Visualization is a powerful tool to develop the relaxation response. Visualization and other imagery techniques can be very useful tools to dissipate stress and therefore support your overall health and well being.