The past few decades of medical research have shown unequivocally that those with chronic stressors in their lives are more vulnerable to disease. Chronic stress has a significant effect on the immune system that may ultimately manifest an illness. The illness can be physical (like heart attack or stroke) or it can be psychological (depression or anxiety). Stress can actually change the way we express genes for various molecules that contribute to optimal balance in our body.
The Holmes and Rahe stress scale attributes points to various life events in order to quantify their impact on well being. The concept is simple. The more points a person collects, the higher the stress level and therefore, the higher the risk of stress-related illness.
Using this scale, a score of 300 or higher indicated marked risk for illness. Between 150 and 299 indicates moderate risk, and below 150 there is a slight risk of illness.
A slightly modified scale is used for non-adult adolescents. Further modified scales have also been adapted for children with various authors putting forth specific factors and assigning points to them based on epidemiological data. Child integrative mental health expert Dr. Scott Shannon proposes measuring factors such as family vacation, loss of a pet, move to a new town, no breakfast, and excess electronic media in evaluating similar childhood stressors.
Most children and adults who see a therapist or a psychiatrist experience multiple stress factors. Such numbers present an interesting view of various illnesses and raise the question whether use of a medication to treat social conditions is always valid. Sometimes it is truly indicated; such as when the contributing factors an individual is experiencing cannot be changed. In other cases lifestyle change can greatly diminish stress and allow the mind and body to heal naturally.
Certainly, a child who is being bullied at school, failing in class, or experiencing conflict with a teacher is a stressed child. And if one adds to this stress common lifestyle conditions such as obesity, unhealthy food, poor sleep hygiene, exposure to age inappropriate sexuality or violence, too much exposure to video games – the risk of illness is astronomical. Does this scenario call for medication or lifestyle change to effect long term results?
An integrative psychiatrist will perform a thorough evaluation to identify stressors that might be unique to an individual or their environment. Evaluating whether medication is required in conjunction with other treatments can only be done by a physician expert in weighing conventional medications against a whole spectrum of other possible treatments.
Stress is often modifiable with simple techniques that human beings have used for millennia. Expressing, trusting, loving, belonging – these can be the cures for stress. After all, apparent in the adjacent table is the fact that a lack of these things is often what produces the stress in the first place!
Dr. Qazi Javed is a double board certified physician practicing Adult, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. His practice is focused on a holistic and integrative model of care with offices in Austin and Cedar Park, Texas.