How Stress and Control Issues Affect Health and Chronic Conditions

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  • 0:02 Chronic Conditions
  • 1:05 Control
  • 2:32 Chronic Stress
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

In this lesson, we'll look at how the idea of control, or the illusion of control, leads a person to stress. This stress, in turn, magnifies many chronic ailments.

Chronic Conditions

Barring some major issue, you will probably live into your 60s or 70s. Maybe even your 80s! Thanks to modern medicine, people are living longer and healthier lives, for the most part. But is it a good, healthy set of years you have remaining? And what can you do to make them better?

Chronic diseases , sometimes referred to as chronic conditions , are conditions that develop more slowly, and typically worsen over time. They include things as terrible as cancer, as potentially dangerous as heart disease and as painful as arthritis. It's something where once you have it, you are going to have to start changing the way you live your life because you're never really going to outgrow it.

When it comes to controlling these diseases, we have to learn what we can and can't do. What's the saying, 'Give me the strength to control what I can and the wisdom to know what I cannot?' Let's look at what happens when people suffer stress because they are trying to control something they can't.


As an example, I want you to slow your heart rate down to half the rate it's going right now. Certain people who have trained for it can drop their heart rate dangerously low. But you see, trying to control your heart rate is like saying 'Try to relax'. It's impossible!

When we talk about control, we are saying the idea that our behaviors have a great deal of influence over what happens. This is, of course, kind of an erroneous thought. We can't control everything that happens. We sometimes control very little of what is happening. It's when we want to control but don't have it that things begin to get a little wonky.

What I mean is, when we want to control our lives but don't have it, it creates stress, which is a physiological and psychological strain. When we are stressed, we create cortisol, which allows us to tap into our energy stores but also begins to break down tissue. In the short run, cortisol can help you fight off a lion or run away from a bear. In the long run, like trying to file your TPS report with the correct cover page or 12-month long corporate merger, the cortisol can actually begin to break down tissue in your body and brain. Obviously, from this example, cortisol was developed for a different kind of threat than the average person faces now.

Chronic Stress

The idea of chronic stress is something more like our worker bee trying to get their TPS report done correctly. The system begins to break down from chronic cortisol use, as well as adrenal fatigue. Basically, imagine red lining an engine until it runs out of gas, then trying to get it to go a few more miles. Things are breaking down, and they aren't getting fixed.

Chronic stress is basically a big issue with any kind of chronic condition. Let's take the big three we discussed earlier: cancer, heart disease and arthritis. With cancer, the system is attempting to fight off an internal invader. This is usually helped with chemical and radiation treatments, which, incidentally, weaken the immune system fighting off the invader.

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