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Stress intensifies the chronic pain of arthritis and other joint disorders. It also produces tension-type headaches, caused by the tightening of the muscles in the neck and scalp. Research indicates that people who have frequent tension headaches have a biological predisposition for converting emotional stress into muscle contraction.
The physical effects of stress hormones on the brain include interference with memory and learning. Acute stress interferes with short-term memory, although this effect goes away after the stress is resolved. People who are under severe stress become unable to concentrate; they may become physically inefficient, clumsy, and accident-prone. In children, however, the brain's biochemical responses to stress clearly hamper the ability to learn.
Chronic stress appears to be a more important factor than aging in the loss of memory in older adults. Older people with low levels of stress hormones perform as well as younger people in tests of cognitive (knowledgerelated) skills, but those with high levels of stress hormones test between 20% and 50% lower than the younger test subjects.
Chronic stress affects the human immune system and increases a person's risk of getting an infectious illness. Several research studies have shown that people under chronic stress have lower than normal white blood cell counts and are more vulnerable to colds and influenza. Men with HIV infection and high stress levels progress more rapidly to AIDS than infected men with lower stress levels.
DSM-IV-TRspecifies two major categories of mental disorders directly related to stress—the post-traumatic syndromes and adjustment disorders. Stress is, however, also closely associated with depression, and can worsen the symptoms of most other disorders.
Post-traumatic stress disorder(PTSD) and acute stress disorder(ASD) are defined by their temporal connection to a traumatic event in the individual's life. The post-traumatic disorders are characterized by a cluster of anxiety and dissociative symptoms, and by their interference with the patient's normal level of functioning. Magnetic resonance imaging(MRI) studies have shown that the high levels of sustained stress in some PTSD patients cause demonstrable damage to the hippocampus. Excessive amounts of stress hormones in brain tissue cause the nerve cells, or neurons, in parts of the hippocampus to wither and eventually die. One group of Vietnam veterans with PTSD had lost as much as 8% of the tissue in the hippocampus.
Author Info: Rebecca J. Frey Ph.D., The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, 2003
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