Environmental Stress: How It Affects Your Health

By Dr. Edward F. Group

Guest writer for Wake Up World

There are many sources of stress in life, some overt, some less obvious. One type of stress that doesn’t get a lot of attention but has a big effect on our health is the stress associated with our environment. Some environments are very low stress – like getting out in nature. Other environments, like a loud, noisy industrial factory, wear on us much differently. If you’re trying to live a healthy life, you need to consider all the inputs, including how your environment affects you. Here, we’ll take a look at environmental stress and its effects.

What Is Environmental Stress?

Environmental stress refers to how people or animals respond to physical, chemical and biological features of their environment. These stressors may include exposure to natural disasters, electromagnetic radiation, pollution, extreme weather events, or noise. They can be pathogens that invade the body, causing a stress response, or features of your workplace like an uncomfortable chair. Whether one-time or long-term, environmental stressors cause strain on the body and mind. The response of the body ranges from a short-term fight-or-flight response to long-term changes to your health.

Hans Selye first coined the term stress in 1950 as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand.” Since then, scientists have learned much more about stress. For animals – which we are – stressors may include predators, the availability of food, illness, or changes in the living environment. Humans face those stressors but also perceived threats, relationship issues, financial and work concerns, and more. Environmental stress psychology focuses on how people’s mental wellness responds to physical, biological, and chemical stressors.

How the Body Responds to Stress

When faced with a stressor, the body reacts in predictable ways. If it’s an immediate threat – you spot a venomous snake – your body prepares itself via what scientists call the fight-or-flight response. This bodily response prepares you to either fight the snake or run away.

For more mundane threats, which most environmental stressors are, the body responds in more nuanced ways. This subtle stress response can be even more harmful to your health than acute threats because it comes without fanfare. You may experience an unpleasant feeling of anxiety, or you may think nothing much about the chemical factory at the end of your street, but these constant stressors have serious impacts on your health, longevity, and mental wellness. Because the stressor is constant, you may not realize the long-term effects and the importance of removing it from your life.

The Body’s Response to Short-Term Stress

During a fight-or-flight response, the body releases a series of catecholamine stress hormones, including norepinephrine and epinephrine. These hormones cause your body to react in several ways: your stomach gets nervous, your heart races, your breath rate increases, your palms get sweaty, and your hands shake. Acute stress can affect your emotions, reduce your problem-solving ability, and cause other short-term psychological disturbances.[1] If the threat is severe enough, you might even lose control of your bowels.

Paradoxically, exposure to some short-term stressors – also called event stressors – can help the body have a stronger immune system. In these quick, sudden threats, the body redirects “killer T-cells” to the skin, where they boost the immune response.[2] The exception to this is when conditions triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response become a regular occurrence, such as domestic violence. The immune system responds negatively to regular short-term acute stressors.

The Health Effects of Long-Term Exposure to Stress

We face hundreds of environmental stressors daily. Some of these everyone is exposed to, like legacy chemicals that accumulate in people’s bodies because they are omnipresent throughout the world. Others are unique to an individual’s location, like living next to a railroad track or surviving a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey or the California wildfires. The basic concept of environmental stress is that exposure to these many and varied stressors has happened at a pace that the body’s natural immune systems can’t keep up with.

Long-term exposure to stress, such as environmental stressors, causes far more health problems than quick stress events.[2] Chronic stressors reduce the body’s ability to fight infection and keep up with the normal process of cell replacement.[2, 3] Regular exposure to stress causes the body to produce cytokines, which diminish the immune response. Cytokine production contributes to autoimmune disease, allergies, and a higher chance of serious illness. Long-term exposure to stress can cause blood sugar and heart health issues.[4, 5] Chronic stress can even change your DNA, shortening telomeres which protect against cell damage.[6, 7] Constant exposure to stressors can lead to mental illness, including depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.[8]

Worry: Adding Stress to Stress

Your perception of the stressor can affect how you handle it. Not only do different people have different capacities to manage stress, but when you worry about a stressor, you actually increase your stress! Thinking and worrying about a stressor worsens your stress response.[9] So try to minimize the worry, and focus on eliminating the stressor or managing stress through a variety of stress management techniques.

Types of Environmental Stress

There are many examples of environmental stress factors, ranging from weather conditions to cell phone radiation to life/situation stressors. Environmental stress theory is the body of science that analyzes how stress factors (stressors) from the environment affect people, communities, and cultures. Biologists also study how environmental stressors affect the evolution and ecology of animals, plants, and ecosystems, but I will focus on how these stressors affect people, and what you can do about them.

Types of Environmental Stressors

  • Major Disturbance Stressor
    • Natural disasters
    • Major life changes
    • Tragic events
  • Chemical Stressors
  • Anthropogenic Stressors
    • Crowds
    • Excess and loud noise
    • Changes to the natural environment
  • Energetic Stress
    • Ionizing radiation (Ultraviolet, X-rays, gamma rays)
    • Non-ionizing radiation (microwaves, radio waves, visible light)
  • Physical Environment Stressors
    • Too much or not enough light
    • Colors
    • The location of items in your environment
  • Ergonomic Stressors
    • Poor posture from work environments
    • Heavy labor or exercise
    • Intellectual stress
  • Biological Stressors
    • Pathogens
    • Allergens
    • Illness

Major Disturbance Stress

Major disturbances in your life and the world cause major stress. Reports of natural disasters saturate the news – Hurricane Maria devastating Puerto Rico, lava flows destroying parts of Hawaii, tornadoes ripping through homes in Oklahoma. A major disturbance can also be due to a disease epidemic like Ebola hitting West Africa, an act of violence, or racial injustice. Active military and veterans, especially those who served in a theater of war, also experience major disturbance stress. Personal issues such as a divorce or loss of a loved one can also act as major disturbance stressors.

When it comes to a natural disaster or national emergency, the most intense impact will, of course, be for those in the closest proximity. However, any major disturbance that affects your community or your life – even through the news – such calamities cause long-term, low-level stress. The body may initially respond to intense events with a fight-or-flight response. But months and years after TV networks have forgotten a tragedy, individuals are still rebuilding their homes or communities – and being affected by residual stress from them.

People may experience intense, unpredictable emotions, sensitivity to the environment, and vivid memories or dreams after major disturbances and natural disasters.[10] Another common response is to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), whereby a person gets triggered by stimuli in their environment, becoming extremely distraught, anxious or scared. Survivor guilt, in which survivors wonder why they lived through an event when others in the same situation did not, is also a common result.[11]

What to Do About Major Disturbance Stress

Experts recommend that survivors of natural disasters or other traumatic situations give themselves time to recover, seek outside help, and engage in self-care. While no one can predict when something major will affect their life you can take actions to care for your mental and physical health in the days and months afterward. Research has shown that spending time in nature, meditation, exercise, and good nutrition can have profound impacts on your resilience in recovering from a major disturbance.

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Chemical Stress

We encounter thousands of chemicals daily: pesticide residue on our food, antibiotics, and hormones fed to food animals, and chemicals in our beauty and household products and even in our carpets and furniture. While they may not cause blatant mental stress – unless you live next door to a chemical factory – these substances physically stress the body. Although the body has natural detoxification processes in the liver and kidneys, these organs can scarcely keep up with so the thousands of chemicals we are exposed to, which means they accumulate in the body, potentially causing long-term health problems.[19] Just a few hundred years ago, people lived surrounded by nature and ate naturally grown foods. Today, we live in a more industrialized and chemical-saturated world.

According to Harvard scientists in a 2014 report, industrial chemicals that are widespread in the environment have caused a “global, silent pandemic of neurodevelopmental toxicity” causing harm to the brains of the next generation.”[20] Children, whose brains and bodies are still growing, are particularly vulnerable to the physical stress chemicals cause.

What to Do About Chemical Stress

Choices you make as a consumer make a big difference in minimizing chemical stress. Buy organic food, use natural beauty products and cleaners or make your own, and avoid exposure to harmful chemicals whenever and wherever possible. Create a healthy home environment with good insulation, use air filters, and buy products that minimize the use of furniture, sheets, and other products created with organic materials, without flame retardants or containing chemicals. A chemical and toxic metal detox can help your body eliminate toxicants, ensuring the organs work more efficiently.

Anthropogenic Stress

Today, most people live in environments that are a far cry from the more natural setting in which humanity arose. While cities have their perks, the constant noise, traffic, movement, and crowding take their toll on the body and mind. Noise pollution can cause serious stress to the body and mind.[21] People who live near car, aircraft, and railway noise experience higher blood sugar and diabetes, increased blood pressure, greater arterial stiffness (a contributor to heart disease), and higher levels of stress hormones.[22] These subtle health changes can happen even when you’re exposed to noises during your sleep!

With 7 billion people on the Earth, humanity itself is a stressor on natural systems. Species are disappearing and ecosystems are being damaged. More than half the world’s tropical and temperate forests are now gone, and the global loss of coastal wetlands have placed the one-third of humanity who live within 100km of the ocean at greater risk from tsunamis and hurricanes. These changes affect us in subtle and conspicuous ways. Crowding caused by overpopulation, or just having millions of people living together in small spaces can cause stress.[23]

Besides the direct impacts that crowding and excess stimuli in our environments causes, the decline of biodiversity and natural landscapes around the planet, and in our local communities causes a loss of a “sense of place” in some people, as well as depression, and emotional stress.[24]

What to Do About Anthropogenic Stress

On a positive note, research indicates that spending time in nature and including more nature in your life – even houseplants or nature artwork in your home and office – can reduce your stress.[25] Putting nature back into your life what urban or even rural expansion has taken away can directly counter this stress. Create spaces and times where and when you can enjoy complete quietude, reclaiming your power over the noisy world. If you can’t move away from a noisy highway or railroad, get white noise generators or small fountains that play the sounds of nature while you rest.

Energetic Stress

Invisible but very real, energetic stressors can cause disturbances to the body and mind. People walk around with their cell phones at their ear, right by the brain and studies have found that the radio-frequency waves emitted by cell phone radiation caused brain tumors in rats.[26]

The earth contains many different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation that travel through time and space, including radio waves, microwaves, visible light, ultraviolet (UV), X-rays and gamma rays. All of these invisible rays can have an impact on our health and well being. These waves of energy are also called electric & magnetic field (EMF) radiation, and they exist in two forms, ionizing and non-ionizing.

Ionizing radiation comes from UV, X-rays, and gamma rays, and is the most concerning, as scientists have already shown that it can cause cellular and DNA damage.[27] Non-ionizing comes from microwaves, visible light, radio-frequency waves, and extremely low-frequency waves (ELF) – although long-term exposure to microwaves damages body tissues.[28] See: The Harmful Effects of Electromagnetic Fields Explained.

Geopathic stress can arise when there’s a disruption in the normal electromagnetic field, at any wavelength. These can occur along geological fault lines in the Earth, where small movements occur regularly, or near underground tunnels, electrical power lines, or near underground streams (aquifers).

What to Do About Energetic Stress

Take a vacation from technology – or take regular breaks from it. Turn off your phone at least a couple of hours before bedtime or, at a minimum, turn down the light brightness. As far as geopathic stress goes, try not to live directly on top of a geological fault line or too near to power lines. In cases where you cannot move away from them, engage in regular stress relieving exercises, listed at the end of this article, to build your physical and mental resilience.

Physical Environment Stress

Physical environmental stressors can include light, color, and energetic vibrations. Too much sunlight or not enough can both serve as stressors. People living in northern latitudes without much sunlight exposure during winter may experience seasonal affective disorder, a condition characterized by sadness and “blues” during these months. Artificial lights, especially blue light and fluorescent lights which are used in many work environments can stress our minds and bodies. Even energy-efficient LED light bulbs, which are often described as the better alternative for the environment, can create stress on the body.

From the beginning of humanity, people used minimal light at night, but today, most people use lights on late in the evening, including light from our cell phones. This excess and unnatural light affects our body’s circadian rhythms and lowers levels of the sleep hormone melatonin, which means disrupted sleep cycles. The blue wavelengths cause much of the problem in the evening hours, according to researchers.[29] (See: The Dark Side of Blue Light — How Tablets, Computers and Smartphones are Making Us Fat, Sick and Stupid)

Proponents of feng shui, an ancient Chinese system of harmonizing your environment, believe that the way you organize items in your home or work affects your life and health. Colors also play a role in this system. Practitioners believe that arranging spaces and using color for the optimal flow of energy, or ch’i, brings better health and prosperity. Increasing positive energies and vibrations, while reducing negative ones, balancing the five elements (fire, earth, metal, water, and wood) helps improve mood and harmony. These ancient systems are being used in hospital settings to improve health outcomes and patient mental wellness,[30] and in workplaces to improve productivity and attitudes.

What to Do About Physical Environment Stress

Become aware of your environment. Take a break from your cell phone at night, as mentioned before. Purchase yellow-tinted glasses to reduce the impact of the glare from your computer screen on your body, especially your eyes. If you live in a locale with minimal light at night, you may need to increase your exposure to light, perhaps through a daylight therapy lamp, or take a natural supplement that reduces depression and anxiety during winter months. To improve the flow of energy in your environment year-round, study up on feng shui techniques and see what you can employ in your home or workplace. A small fountain with flowing water can do wonders for keep ch’i moving, signaling smooth sailing.

Ergonomic Stress

When you work 40 hours a week, whether at a desk in front of a computer or doing manual labor, you may experience ergonomic stress from posture, poor shoes, and sitting or standing for too many hours at a time. Ergonomic stressors are those that affect your body posture and spinal alignment. Extreme exercise can also cause ergonomic stress.

Workplaces often cause ergonomic stress, as well. Most workplaces are not designed with people’s true needs and health in mind. But studies have found that nature, in particular, can reduce environmental and ergonomic stressors at work. Work environments with greenery and sunlight had 15% greater employee productivity. And people working in biophilic workplaces – which means places that simulate nature – feel happier, more creative and more motivated.[31]

What to Do About Ergonomic Stress

Chiropractors can do wonders for ergonomic stress, but it’s best to be proactive rather than reactive, minimizing stressors where possible. See whether your company might improve the workplace environment, whether buying more ergonomic chairs or bringing in more plants. Take time in your workday to stretch, or try a standing desk. Invest in good shoes that support your arches. Avoid high heels. Meditate during your 15-minute break, closing your eyes and imagining yourself in a beautiful natural setting with a smile on your face!

Biological Stress

The body also experiences biological stressors in the form of pathogens, like viruses, bacteria, and parasites, as well as allergens. If you have allergies, you know this well, but allergens are substances in the environment that cause an allergic reaction in the body, ranging from sneezing and watery eyes to a rash to severe allergic reactions that affect breathing. Many people have food allergies and sensitivities – sometimes you may not even know about them – that affect the proper functioning of the digestive system, which in turn affects everything from your skin to your mental health. Check our article on the link between mental health and your gut to learn more about this topic.

Any illness that you face acts as a biological stressor. When the body’s immune system can’t keep up, a major illness may occur. Sometimes autoimmune diseases may cause your body to attack itself. These cause mental stress and physical constraints on your body’s ability to naturally overcome the issue. Staying as healthy as possible, doing regular detoxifying cleanses, and engaging in as many natural health practices as you can help you thrive.

What to Do About Biological Stress

These may go without saying, but regularly and thoroughly wash your hands with soap and hot water to minimize exposure to germs. Keep your body as healthy as possible by eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet – ideally plant-based. Build your body’s natural resilience and boost its detoxifying abilities by performing a whole body cleanse or cleansing the colon or liver. If you are dealing with a major illness, take care of yourself. While this well-meaning advice is often given, it is not always heeded. Keep your mental outlook positive, expressing thoughts in a journal, with a therapist, or a good friend. Enjoy life; it is short. Give and get lots of hugs, spread kindness, smile often, and forgive. As the saying goes, anger is like poison: we think we are giving it to the other person, but we are swallowing it ourselves. Find ways to laugh – a comedy show, a funny movie, or a great friend with an awesome sense of humor. Laugh hard and often. These small acts can change your life and improve your health.

Ways to Reduce the Overall Impact of Environmental Stress

While you may not be able to eliminate certain environmental stressors, most people can reduce their exposure to them. This can improve your health in many ways. Here are some ways to reduce the impact of the many environmental stressors we all face.

Reduce Exposure to the Stressor

It might go without saying, but the most important and easiest way to reduce environmental stress involves minimizing your exposure. This is not always possible, but in many cases it is.

Unfortunately, not everyone can easily move away from certain environmental stressors. This is especially true for individuals who often do not have the resources to move away from harmful environments. If you can move or get away from a stressor, do so. If you have to stay, your solutions will depend on the particular stressor you face. If you live near a noisy highway or railroad, you can use noise-canceling white noise generators in your home, or play nature sounds while you sleep. If the issue is a chemical plant, you can use a good quality air filter to reduce pollutants (and change them regularly), have excellent insulation in your home, and plant trees and shrubs in your yard to help absorb chemicals and noise.

Cleanse Your Environment

One of the first steps you can take when choosing a more natural lifestyle is to eliminate products that contain toxic chemicals – such as traditional cleaning products, beauty and body care products – and replacing them with healthier, environmentally-friendly, or organic options. Think about where toxic chemicals may lurk and then go through your home eliminating them where you can. You can do a deep clean of your home using natural products, or do it more gradually with baby steps. You can also try a body cleanse to eliminate and minimize the toxic effects of constant exposure to chemicals in our environment.

Build Resilience

The good news is that you can build resilience to stress through various behaviors and lifestyle changes. Resilience means your ability to bounce back from stress or to handle it well. Making these specific changes not only reduce the impact of ongoing stress but also helps your body better cope with stress that may happen in the future.

Resilience to stress has a bio-psychological basis. Studies show that chemicals in the body, namely neuropeptide Y (NPY) and 5-DHEA (5-Dehydroepiandrosterone), reduce the body’s stress response in resilient individuals.[32] These substances limit or prevent the sympathetic nervous system from activating and protect the brain from the effects of elevated cortisol.[32] So even if a person experiences high cortisol levels from stress, resilient individuals have these extra layers of protection inside their bodies and minds that can limit the damage. Relationships and family connections build resilience to stress by releasing oxytocin – the love hormone – in the body.[33]

The American Psychological Association has developed a list of ten ways to build resilience:

  • Maintain good relationships with close family members, friends, and others.
  • Avoid seeing crises or stressful events as unbearable problems.
  • Accept circumstances that cannot be changed.
  • Develop realistic goals and move towards them.
  • Take decisive actions in adverse situations.
  • Look for opportunities for self-discovery after a struggle with loss.
  • Develop self-confidence.
  • Keep a long-term perspective and consider the stressful event in a broader context.
  • Maintain a hopeful outlook, expecting good things and visualizing what you desire.
  • Take care of one’s mind and body, exercising regularly, paying attention to one’s own needs and feelings. [34]

How to Manage Environmental Stress

When you can’t physically get away from a particular stressor, you can still reduce the impact. There are dozens of strategies you can employ to manage your response to stress, build your resilience and create a stronger, healthier you!

Increase Your Connections to Nature

Nature is a powerful healing force. We evolved in nature, surrounded by the natural world – whether forests, oceans, rivers, or grasslands. But in the modern world, most people in the developed world live in cities, surrounded by buildings, roads, and cars. The good news is that the human body is hard-wired to respond positively to nature. Scientists found that viewing dramatic vistas in nature strongly stimulates pleasure receptors in the brain.[35] Ill patients who can view nature through a window or see a natural vista have reduced mortality after hospital stays, which suggests that any time in nature can improve your mental and physical health and well-being.[36] And time spent walking in nature reduces depression and stress-related illness.[37, 38] So get out there and enjoy!

Some ways to increase your connection to nature:

  • Spend time outdoors; go for a walk, hike, kayak.
  • Ground yourself by walking barefoot on the grass or bare soil.
  • Have more houseplants inside your home or office.
  • Get a pet, particularly a cat or dog.
  • Play nature sounds in your home or listen to them at work.
  • Watch nature videos such as documentaries.
  • Create an aquarium in your home.
  • Put artwork of nature in your home.

Find Ways to Relax

There are numerous ways to relax your body and mind, which can reduce your stress, especially if you can’t immediately eliminate the stressor. Having a healthy mental outlook is key to reducing stress since there are known connections between the mind and body. Scientists have evidence that several techniques – including mindfulness meditationacupuncture, music therapy, and relaxation techniques – have a positive impact on depression, anxiety, and stress.[39]

A few techniques that may help you include:

  • Meditate
  • Take a warm bath with Epsom salts
  • Do a foot soak
  • Get a massage
  • Read a novel
  • Unplug from technology
  • Take a vacation
  • Try aromatherapy with healing essential oils
  • Engage in deep breathing exercises
  • Use feng shui and color management to optimize your work and home
  • Change UV lights to full spectrum
  • Laugh!

Improve Your Health

Improving your overall health is one of the most important ways to relieve stress. Not only does it relieve stress outright – think how great you feel after a good run or a yoga session – exercise and a nutritious diet boost your body’s natural stress-relief and body-detoxifying mechanisms. But no matter how healthy you are, because of the constant exposure to environmental chemicals, performing body cleanses or following a detox diet to eliminate allergy-causing foods can give you more energy, purify your system, and make you feel great.

A few ideas for improving your health:

  • Adopt a natural health lifestyle.
  • Begin a healthy eating plan.
  • Try eating a plant-based diet.
  • Increase your intake of stress-relieving foods.
  • Get fit and exercise: walk, run, bike, canoe, dance.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Reduce alcohol intake.
  • Improve your flexibility with yoga or pilates.
  • Cleanse or detox your body.
  • Get a check-up from a natural health practitioner.
  • Take natural supplements for stress relief.
  • Make sure you have the vitamins and minerals your body needs.
  • Get adequate restful sleep.
  • Create artwork, journal, or take up a hobby.
  • Avoid worry.

Is There an Environmental Stress Screening Test?

Healthcare providers can measure your level of stress in various ways. Levels of cortisol in the blood can indicate stress. Physicians can also evaluate electrodermal activity with the galvanic skin response. Stress affects the way electrical impulses travel through our skin, and these impulses can be tested. Blood pressure can also be monitored. In fact, you can self-monitor your stress by keeping an eye on your blood pressure.[40]

A common way to measure stress involves psychological testing. Two scales include the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, and the Depression and Anxiety Stress Scale (DASS). The Holmes and Rahe is a list of 43 events that cause stress, and you receive points for how many have occurred within the past year.[41] The DASS is a 42-question test about a person’s mental and emotional state.[42]

Your Story…

Do you face a particular environmental stressor in your life? How do you reduce the impact of that stressor, or of stress in general? Tell us your story in the comments!


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About the author:

Dr. Edward F. Group III (DC, ND, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM) founded Global Healing Center in 1998 with the goal of providing the highest quality natural health information and products. He is world-renowned for his research on the root cause of disease. Under his leadership, Global Healing Center earned recognition as one of the largest natural and organic health resources in the world. Dr. Group is a veteran of the United States Army and has attended both Harvard and MIT business schools. He is a best-selling author and a frequent guest on radio and television programs, documentary films, and in major publications.

Dr. Group centers his philosophy around the understanding that the root cause of disease stems from the accumulation of toxins in the body and is exacerbated by daily exposure to a toxic living environment. He believes it is his personal mission to teach and promote philosophies that produce good health, a clean environment, and positive thinking. This, he believes, can restore happiness and love to the world.

For more, please visit Global Healing Center.

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