The link between stress and ill-health is well established. Even everyday stressful events can impair our immune system, though normally we recover quickly. Researchers in psychoneuroimmunology, which explores the link between emotions and health, have monitored university students and found that small wounds take 40 per cent longer to heal at exam time than during the summer break.
In one study, men and women looking after a spouse with Alzheimer’s had damaged immune systems and those most distressed by their spouse’s erratic behavior showed the most damage.89 Even the chances of catching a cold are increased by the amount of stress you’ve been through in the previous year. People with fewer social ties, so less support and probably more stress, are more susceptible to respiratory viruses. Stressful relationships increase our chances of illness and early death by about the same as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and inactivity.90
Studies have shown that it people’s bodies don’t react to stressful situations so readily. A study at the University Of Wisconsin Medical School showed that breast cancer patients on a fitness programme were less depressed and rated themselves as more positive and more able to manage their lives.
Putting the effort in to manage our stress and disruptive emotions appears to have a physical payoff. Researchers have found that relaxation, exercises and meditation improved immune systems even for elderly people and people who already have cancer.93 David Spiegel from the Stanford Brain Research Institute monitored women with advanced breast cancer who attended a therapy group once a week to learn how to handle the fear, anger and depression that you’d expect with a life-threatening disease. They lived twice as long as women who only had medical treatment.
4.8.1 ‘Type A’ and stress
If you are constantly disrupted by stress, consider whether you might be ‘Type A’. You’ll often hear people talk of a Type A personality but it’s a way of behaving. If you are generally Type A, you are likely to feel that you are running out of time in your relentless struggle to achieve and you are easily annoyed if anyone or anything gets in your way.
Type A people tend to over-react. It’s a stressful way to live, though there are some Type A people who cope better with stress than many of their Type B colleagues (and complain that they’d be even less stressed if it weren’t for their Type B colleagues holding them up!).
Researchers believe that it’s the hostility typical of Type A behavior that really does the damage. A 25 year study of lawyers found that those who were the most hostile were up to five times more likely to die before they were 50.
Later research has revealed that it’s a particular kind of cool hostility that can be fatal. People under 45 who are confronting, aggressive, rude, cynical, uncooperative and belittling are the candidates for heart disease. Occasional outbursts or being irritable don’t count. Some researchers have reservations about the findings, but only about the specific link with heart disease. They still see a link between hostility and all other causes of premature death, including cancer.
Here’s the hopeful part. Type A people can change. One study of 1000 people showed that some simple retraining produces very good results. The retraining included assignments that you could give yourself. The researchers asked their trainees to apply some healthy scepticism to some of their beliefs about work – beliefs such as ‘the more work we do, the more we succeed’. They asked the Type A people to stand in queues and instead of giving in to irritation, to consider how much time the waiting gave them to think about useful things or meet someone. The assignments helped them reduce their stress at home and at work and to change typical Type A habits such as losing their temper, eating too fast and interrupting other people. Four and a half years later, those Type A people who took the training were living healthier lives. Their heart attack rate was almost half that of the Type A people who hadn’t done the training.96 You can imagine the benefits for their relationships.