We all wish we had less stress, but recent studies suggest that the type of stress that can kill a person is the type that comes from feeling out of control when facing stressors. It seems that helplessness, when combined with stressors is a toxic formula.
It gets worse, though because the further down the socioeconomic ladder that one gets, the more out of control a person feels about their stressors. This can lead to premature death, depression, heart disease and diabetes. Another finding is that being poverty stricken early in life can have life-long consequences.
Even for those that are able to climb the economic ladder later have the potential to show long lasting effects of hardship early on. Researchers have found that these people are more likely to become ill than those that have never been poor. However, an increase in income later may help to lower disease risk because of the greater health resources a person has access to, as well as reducing the feelings of helplessness a person feels.
However, early age poverty could potentially increase the rate at which we age.
Michael Marmot, a British epidemiologist, has dubbed the phenomenon “status syndrome.” He has been studying British civil servants that work in a strict hierarchy for years, and in that time, he has discovered that, even when suspects like diet, smoking and availability of health care are accounted for, there is a direct link between one’s well-being, health and their place in the big scheme of life. In other words, the higher a person climbs in the social hierarchy, the better the health of that person.
It’s caused, Dr. Marmot says, from the type of stress that lower income people experience. It’s made worse because people in this situation find that they feel no control over their lives. It is a type of learned helplessness, and in animals, it can cause depression, which inhibits the animal’s ability to remember and learn. If the animal has some type of control over its situation, it tends to be more resilient.
Biologists have said that the helplessness stress is the fight or flight response that lasts forever. This is when the heart rate is elevated; the adrenaline is pumping and blood pressure is increased for an endless amount of time, which causes the body to wear out over time. It can be worse for children, who have nervous systems that are still changeable.
There is hope, however because there is help for people that do experience this kind of stress, and it starts with overall health. By ensuring early on that kids are healthy, and by adults of all income brackets ensuring that they get the health care they need, many of the negative effects of toxic stress can be offset. And, when mental health is addressed, especially in high risk children, stress can be managed, and people can be taught to see that no situation is hopeless.