Severe stress can affect our somatic well-being – but is part of this stress created in our minds? A recent meta-analysis on the link between worrying and the physiological stress response suggests that worrying does indeed affect our heart and hormones.
Any textbook on “stress” will tell you how important our stress reaction is for our own survival. It was of great importance for our ancestors to be able to run away quickly when faced with, for example, a dangerous bear. When we are faced with a threatening situation our stress response system is triggered, which sets in motion several physical changes: increases in heart rate and blood pressure, and the release of several energy-promoting hormones, such as cortisol. These changes enable us to run away from the threatening situation or to cope with it in some other way. It’s a beautiful system, which has great survival value. But let’s face it: how often do we encounter bears in our daily lives in modern society?
What has been overlooked in decades of stress research is that a lot of our modern stress is not due to real and acutely threatening situations. Instead, a lot of stress is psychological: we worry about not making a deadline at work, while also having to take care of two kids and a mortgage (and let’s not forget the golden retriever, to complete the stereotype). A lot of stressful situations are only present in people’s minds (as they keep on thinking about that deadline). We have great mind power, which allows us to dream about our upcoming vacation, but the downside is that we can also create a lot of stressful thoughts in our minds – we humans worry.
Worrying about stress
It’s only in the last 10 years that research has examined whether these worries also trigger a stress response. In 2006, stress researcher Jos Brosschot, together with his American colleagues Bill Gerin and Julian Thayer, formulated the hypothesis that for a stress response to occur, it doesn’t matter whether the stressful event is unfolding in reality (your boss blaming you for a mistake) or is only created in your mind (worrying about your work while in bed). Worrying will prolong the stress response, and this will add to the total ‘wear and tear’ effect that stressful events have on our bodies. Research had already demonstrated that people who experience a lot of stress are at heightened risk for somatic health problems. Could these detrimental effects of stress be due to stress ‘that’s only in the mind’? After all, for a lot of worries it holds that the worst case scenarios we anticipate never actually occur. Or, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth put it: “present fears are less than horrible imaginings”.
Physiological effects of worrying
Recently, we systematically inspected the research on the physiological aspects of worrying. Together with researchers from Italy and the USA, Jos Brosschot and I investigated how strong the relation was between worries and the stress response. What has research in the past decade revealed about the physiological effects of worrying? We found that worrying was indeed associated with increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and the stress hormone cortisol. These findings were consistently observed in several independent studies involving hundreds of participants (though to make stronger inferences we actually need thousands of participants – so keep participating in our research!). The sizes of the physiological effects of worrying on cortisol were comparable to those of ‘real’ stressful situations but lower than the effects of ‘real’ situations on blood pressure and heart rate. Yet, in daily life, worrying occurs much more often and lasts longer than stressful events. The impact of this worrying might be considerable.
How to stop worrying
Should we now all immediately try to stop worrying? Well, good luck! Trying not to think about something is pretty hard to do. (Want to try it out? Try as hard as you can to not think about a pink elephant for the next five minutes). Especially since worries usually revolve around topics you care about: health issues, work, children, finances, etc. The best medicine to stop worrying about these issues is probably to stop caring about them (become a robot?). Maybe a little bit of worry in your daily life makes you human? But it absolutely wouldn’t hurt to pay attention to your worries and try to find out how you can calm your mind. Yoga, mindfulness, relaxation exercises, or sports: experiment to find what works best for you.
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