Anything that changes the way we feel emotionally impacts our physical health, according to the science of psychoneuroimmunology.
There are three main systems in the body involved in maintaining health: the nervous system, the hormonal (endocrine) system and the immune system. They are in a communication triangle, each interacting with the others. Anything that affects one system affects the other two.
“The body has all these fail-safe systems in place to stay healthy,” says Michael Lumpkin, Professor of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology at Georgetown University. “ All you really need to do is provide the body with a healing environment and usually the body does the rest .”
Lumpkin explains the effect of healing environments through its soothing effect on the central nervous system: “Part of what a person does is provide some of the sensory deprivation they need… Cut all these exciting and stressful stimuli – Noise, brightness, loud colors like red and orange, harmful odors, etc. Any negative sensation triggers the stress hormone systems. ”
Changing a stressful environment for naturally calming colors, landscapes and sounds helps calm the nervous system .
But what does stress cause in our bodies? Stress is detected by our nervous system, which in turn communicates with our hormonal system to increase these hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline (epinephrine). These hormones activate organs and tissues, including the lungs, heart and skeletal muscles, preparing you to “fight” or immediately escape the threat – whether physical or psychological.
At the same time, these stress hormones suppress body systems that are not immediately needed to place or run. These “nonessentials” include sex hormones, growth hormones, thyroid hormones as well as those of the immune system. Whenever we are stressed, our immune system is compromised.
While this works very well in the short term, conserving energy and allowing us to react to immediate danger, it is not so good for us in response to chronic stress. It starts a cascade of events, says Lumpkin, which can become harmful.
One such event is the inflammatory immune response. Dr. Andrea Danese, Professor at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College in London, has spent years researching how high the response is in adults who have suffered trauma during childhood. He used a large sample of people from Dunedin, New Zealand, to compare adults who were abused as children with adults who were not.
Adults with difficult childhoods had high levels of inflamed blood biomarkers, which indicate activation of the immune system. The immune response is vital for the body to fight short-term disease, but its presence for a long time is harmful. “It has been linked to several age-related chronic diseases,” says Danese. “Cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some forms of cancer and probably dementia.”
Chronic stress can happen at any age. People who work daily under pressure are especially vulnerable; people such as frontline soldiers, firefighters, air traffic controllers, police and emergency personnel.
Lumpkin himself studied the effects of offering medical students stress management training. After eleven weeks, students who had this training (which included meditation, relaxation, and other such techniques) had lower levels of stress hormone cortisol than those who did not have the same preparation. Cortisol in these only increased.
But Lumpkin points out that chronically stressful environments can materialize anywhere, including open offices, quite common today . “People don’t have privacy, nor do they have time to just sit and contemplate a problem. They are constantly bombarded by their colleagues and their questions. ” “I believe buildings and offices can be redesigned to improve the quality of life and health of employees.”
Today’s culture of being continually on and available 24/7 only makes the problem worse.
What to do then? “ If epidemiologists tell us that between 80 and 90 percent of all human disease is stress-related, then I think controlling it is a legitimate goal,” says Lumpkin. He thinks we should consider the work environment an important part of public health. “Let’s face it, where do we spend most of our time?” He asks. “Most of our waking hours are spent working. ”
Author: Lucy Maddox