Stress is one of the most universal human experiences. It has, in a way, led to the survival of the species. The chemicals released by your brain that make you nervous around your crush are the same ones that alarmed your archaic ancestors of possible predators. It goes without saying humans do not face the same stressors as those who called earth home millions of years ago. But, sometimes the brain fails realize this fact. Excess stress, it would appear, may be a risk almost comparable to the beasts of yesteryear; according to a new study, severe stress is linked to higher rates of autoimmune disorders.
In a longitudinal study between 1981 and 2013 entitled, "Association of Stress-Related Disorders With Subsequent Autoimmune Disease," researchers followed 106,464 participants in Sweden between the ages of 33 and 50, all of whom had been diagnosed with a stress disorder. These diagnoses included but were not limited to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Acute Stress Disorder, and Adjustment Disorder. Researchers simultaneously followed 1,064,640 people without these diagnoses (127,000 of which were siblings of the diagnosed participants).
The findings were alarming. According to the results published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), participants with a diagnosed stress disorder are at a 36 percent higher risk of developing any number of autoimmune conditions. Further, women as well as black, Hispanic, and Native American people are already more prone to developing an autoimmune disease, per Medical Xpress.
Dr. Huan Song, a professor at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, and a lead researcher for the study, implored participants to not belittle their symptoms. "Patients suffering from severe emotional reactions after trauma or other life stressors should seek medical treatment due to the risk of chronicity of these symptoms and thereby further health decline, such as the increased risk of autoimmune disease."
The purpose of the body's immune system is to protect you from external risks like diseases and infections. An autoimmune disorder describes any number of diseases in which the immune system produces antibodies that instead of fighting infections, attack the body's own tissues, according to WebMD. Some notable examples of these include Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease.
Fortunately, when participants with a stress-related condition underwent treatment for their conditions (for example, those with post-traumatic stress disorder beginning antidepressant therapy) they were able to lower the risk of developing an disorder. It was particularly effective when participants sought treatment within a year of diagnosis. This finding suggests taking active steps to intentionally reduce symptoms of stress can, in fact, counteract the risk of developing an autoimmune disorder.
"Many studies have linked stress conditions as well as adverse childhood events, such as trauma and neglect, to future medical problems, including immune problems," explained Dr. Mayer Bellehsen, a clinical psychologist who serves as the director of the Unified Behavioral Health Center for Military Veterans and Their Families at Northwell Health in New York.
While it is not exactly known how or why stress can increase a person''s chances of developing an autoimmune disorder, Dr. Bellehsen offered a number of possible explanations. Stress is linked to other harmful behaviors like substance abuse and sleep loss, to name a few. These should not be removed rom the entire picture. He notes, "Regardless of cause, this study adds to the evidence of the link between stress conditions and physical well-being, warranting further attention to the reduction of trauma and other causes of stress conditions, as well as improving treatment of these conditions."
While the study suggests a link between stress disorders and autoimmune disorders, correlation does not equal causation. That is to say, just because two phenomena occur simultaneously does not mean one causes the other. It is for this reason researchers emphasize further work needs to be done to clarify whether high levels of stress do indeed *cause* autoimmune disorders. But until then, this review provides some insight into two common human experiences, and how a potentially serious one may be combatted.