Long-term stress can, over time, seriously compromise both physical and mental health, but stress-reducing behavioral interventions can help, said Rockefeller University psychologist Bruce McEwen, PhD, in the annual Neal Miller Distinguished Lecture at APA's 2006 Annual Convention. In his talk, McEwan reviewed neurobiology and brain research illustrating stress effects.
He also noted that short-term and long-term stress produce different types of physical responses.
"The brain is the organ that decides whether a situation is stressful and produces the behavioral responses and physiological responses," McEwen said. "Those stressors can involve things like trauma or abuse or major life events, but also the everyday hassles of work and interpersonal relations."
McEwen discussed how the brain's short-term response to stress-which he calls "allostasis"-is protective: Studies have shown that the stress hormone cortisol and other stress responses can increase cardiovascular system function, memory and the immune system. However, the long-term effects of stress-which McEwen calls "allostatic load"-do the opposite, eventually suppressing the immune system, impairing memory and causing other problems.
Stress-reducing interventions, such as exercise and increased social support, can temper the effects of stress, according to McEwen. "Social support and social integration can reduce allostatic load," he said.