Psychological stress has become an inevitable way of life for most people in the context of day-to-day survival. As chronic stress permeates all levels of modern society, we are making great progress to understand the impact of this phenomenon on our brain and overall health. However, the vast majority of researchers would agree that it is not the stressor per se, but the way in which an individual perceives such stressor and reacts to it that ultimately determines the negative impact of stress on the brain, the endocrine and immune functions. The experience of being “stressed out” emphasizes the inevitable consequences of “wear and tear” on the brain and the body from adapting to demands of daily life. This situation includes the biological, emotional, and behavioral consequences of how a person reacts to chronic stressors and determines his or her lifestyle as indicated by the quality of social interactions, physical activity, smoking, sleeping, eating and alcohol consumption.
We are particularly interested to observe how chronic stress that exceeds an individual’s coping ability, affects the brain, endocrine system and immune system, and in turn, the disease process. The Association between stressors and impaired immune functioning is very strong. Chronic stress has been reported to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression and gastrointestinal disorders, autoimmune diseases, among others. Furthermore, stressful life events, such as exams and academic demands, sleep deprivation, and depression have been linked to lowered immune response. In recent years, we have learned about scientific evidence of chronic stress and cellular aging (as relates to telomers and telomerase activity) in caregivers, reported by the lab of professor Elissa Epel at the University of California, San Francisco.
Regarding behavioral interventions, some researchers have focused on modulation of immune functioning by decreasing the levels of emotional distress. In this sense, Mindfulness Based-Stress Reduction training is showing promise to decrease negative emotions, improve physical symptoms and overall quality of life in cancer patients.