As an adolescent, having both high daily worry and heightened cortisol unsurprisingly increases incidence of adult health complications. However, the effects of worry without heightened cortisol have much less straightforward implications.
Worrying naturally activates our “fight or flight” system, intended to improve mental and physical ability for upcoming challenges. For ancient mankind, this served an obvious purpose- daily worry about a recently encountered lion would initiate a short-term “superhuman” state, and increase chances of survival. One of the most notable consequences is the release of cortisol, which over several days, optimizes our capabilities.
However, in our relatively non-life threatening world, do we still truly benefit from the short-term physiological consequences of worry? It appears that the long-term costs to our health outweigh the potential benefit, as chronic worrying has been linked with fatigue, musculoskeletal pain, and gastrointestinal problems.
The number of people reporting daily worry and anxiety is on the rise, especially with adolescents. There is an undeniably complex relationship between daily worry, cortisol levels, short-term health complaints, and later health complications. Past research indicates that individuals experiencing increased worry for an upcoming challenge, also experience an increase in cortisol. Again, for ancient mankind, cortisol played a beneficial role, making stored energy readily available for quick use- among other perks. The effect of heightened cortisol in adolescents on current health (eg. incidence of cold and flu) and future health (eg. adult fatigue) is still poorly understood.
Researchers at the University of Southern California investigated the connection between daily worry in adolescents, its effect on levels of cortisol upon awakening, and the implications on current and adult health. To better understand these connections, researchers monitored 99 adolescents’ daily worries on a 26-point scale associated with typical stresses (peers, school, appearance etc). Cortisol levels were measured upon awakening, then compared with perceived worry levels, recent health complaints, and finally with later health symptoms.
As complicated as it may be, this study reveals that high worry and high cortisol undoubtedly increase the risk for future health issues. This is especially true for females in the study. The mechanism that biological gender differences play in worry and cortisol remains a fascinating mystery. Unexpectedly, high daily worry without increased cortisol was associated with fewer current health complaints. This suggests a potentially “protective” nature of worry in the short-term, at least for the immune system. Additionally, individuals with high worry and low cortisol did not show significant associations with adult health symptoms.
The physiological interactions of stress-related systems are a highly relevant aspect of human health. Over time, worry and cortisol can contribute to illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression or anxiety. Monitoring and curbing these mental states in adolescents will be important for decreasing adverse health outcomes in adults.
Written By: Soleil Grisé, HBSc