Stress benefits the human body. It can strengthen the body’s immune system and prompt an immediate reaction to real danger. But stress can also be detrimental. Stress, especially chronic stress, can weaken the body’s immune system. It can cause heart disease, high blood pressure and a variety of other ailments. Stress is linked to all six leading causes of death in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.
The origins of stress are mostly emotional. Mental health experts say money troubles, job conflicts, problems with relationships and major life changes are among the most common causes. But there is another, more insidious cause. Scientists are discovering that poor air quality – air pollution – plays a role in increasing stress. They have also discovered that chronic stress leaves your body more susceptible to the damaging effects of air pollution. Here’s how:
Air pollution increases stress
Past studies have identified a link between exposure to ambient air pollution and depression in children. Studies also identified a link between air pollution and suicide. But now researchers are looking more closely at the relationship between air pollution and stress, especially because stress is seen as a precursor to other, more devastating mental health effects.
Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health recently studied the effects of fine particles, black carbon, nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants on stress. They analyzed data on 987 men and found perceived levels of stress rise when people are exposure to air pollution. The association was especially evident in colder weather and in relation to overall particle count levels.
Although the researchers noted that the exact mechanism by which air pollution and stress are related remains a mystery, they think that brain inflammation and hormonal activity are involved in the connection between pollution and stress.
Stress worsens effects of air pollution
Research indicates that stress can make the effects of air pollution worse. In one recent study, laboratory researchers exposed some groups of mice to concentrated particle pollution and others to filtered air.
When already-stressed mice – those showing high levels of certain proteins, white blood cell counts and other indicators – were exposed to high levels of particle pollution, they developed a rapid, shallow breathing pattern. The unstressed mice did not have the same reaction when exposed to the same levels of concentrated particle pollution. The study concluded that chronic stress had a measurable effect on the response of the respiratory system to pollution.
Other studies have also confirmed that stress can magnify the negative impact of pollution. For example, one study at Columbia University found that psychological stress during pregnancy, combined with exposure to elevated levels of air pollution, can result in behavioural problems in children. The children of mothers who were exposed to high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were found to be at the greatest level of risk of developing behavioral problems in childhood.
How to cope with stress
The effects of stress tend to build up over time. Because emotional factors play such an important role in stress, it is crucial to take practical steps to maintain your health and a positive outlook upon life. The following are a few tips that may help:
- Always seek help from a qualified mental health care provider if you are feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope. It is also important to seek help if you are having suicidal thoughts, or if you are using drugs or alcohol to cope with your circumstances.
- Learn the signs of stress. If you are having difficulty sleeping, easily angered, feeling depressed or generally suffering from low energy, you may be feeling the effects of stress.Take early action to prevent stress from becoming worse.
- Exercise regularly. Research has shown that regular aerobic exercise reduces overall levels of tension. Even five minutes of aerobic activity can have a positive impact. Relaxation techniques such as yoga may also help.
- Reduce exposure to pollution. Since stress increases the effects of pollution and pollution increases stress, it only makes sense to reduce your exposure to air pollutants whenever possible. Consider a high-performance air purifier such as the IQAir HealthPro 250 to help rid your home of airborne pollutants that add to stress.
Managing stress is a key to keeping yourself healthy and happy. By recognizing stress early and taking action to control it, you will reduce your risk of a variety of illnesses. For more information on stress and how to control it, visit the website of the American Psychological Association at www.apa.org.