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The Supreme Court rules funding for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is okay, election deniers hold key voting oversight positions in swing states, and North Carolina lawmakers vote to ban people from wearing masks in public.

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Psychiatrist explains links between toxic stress, poor health

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Wednesday, April 10, 2024   

The alarming rise in rates of diabetes, obesity, depression, and other chronic health issues has put the spotlight on toxic stress.

Lawson Wulsin, professor of psychiatry and family medicine at the University of Cincinnati, explained good stress such as a demand or challenge you readily cope with is good for your health. Toxic stress, on the other hand, wears down your stress response system with lasting effects.

He pointed out science has shown the chances of developing serious mental and physical illnesses in midlife rise dramatically when people are exposed to trauma or adverse events, especially during childhood.

"Every person's threshold for toxic stress depends on the specific characteristics of their stress response system," Wulsin noted. "And the cumulative demands that they face over a lifetime."

The earliest effects of toxic stress are often persistent symptoms such as headache, fatigue or abdominal pain. After months of initial symptoms, a full-blown illness such as migraine headaches, asthma or diabetes may surface.

Research shows it is possible to retrain a dysregulated stress response system. The approach, called "lifestyle medicine," focuses on improving health through changing high-risk behaviors and adopting new daily habits. Wulsin emphasized positive lifestyle changes can help the stress response system self-regulate.

"These approaches combined, the daily practice of health behavior changes over six to nine months, with the help of weekly small groups of other people working on the same goals," Wulsin outlined. "It's not quick, not easy, but it works."

The National Diabetes Prevention Program, the Dr. Dean Ornish UnDo It! heart disease program and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs PTSD program have been shown to slow or reverse stress-related chronic conditions through weekly support groups and guided daily practice over six to nine months.

Wulsin added the programs help teach people how to practice personal regimens of stress management, diet and exercise to build and sustain new habits.

This story was produced with original reporting from Lawson Wulsin for The Conversation, in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by The George Gund Foundation.


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