Health & Well-Being

Death by Stress

It may happen more than we realize.


Most of us know that stress is detrimental to health.  But is it as big a problem as heart disease, or cancer, or diabetes? We probably don’t think so, but we’re probably wrong.

We’re not talking about the occasional stressful day or event that can’t be avoided — that won’t necessarily kill you. We’re talking about chronic stress. It’s the difference between a bad day at work vs. a bad job, or a fight with your spouse versus a hostile relationship. In chronic stress, the things that are stressful are almost always present.

Let’s start with a brief explanation. Stress, be it chronic or occasional, is what we feel in the face of harmful or threatening situations. When we feel stress, we experience a stress reaction, which is basically our bodies getting us ready to deal with the situation — either we fight or we flee.

Our brains, nervous systems, and endocrine systems all work together in the stress reaction. Putting it as simply as we can, when we’re stressed, the hypothalamus in the brain stimulates the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream. ACTH then stimulates the adrenal glands to produce corticoids, which help the body access energy stores in the body. The hypothalamus also activates the adrenal gland to produce epinephrine (AKA adrenalin). It is epinephrine that produces fast, short term high energy levels we need to fight or flee.

“If you ask what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress and tension. And if you didn’t ask me, I’d still have to say it.”

                                                      – George Burns

The release of these stress hormones causes a variety of physiological events.  Some of these we know because we’ve felt them, but others may come as a surprise:

  • Heart rate increases to pump more blood to muscles.

  • Endorphins are released by the brain to relieve pain

  • Digestion slows down so blood can be sent to muscles

  • Saliva secretion decreases, producing “cotton mouth”

  • Pupils dilate to make our vision more acute

  • Hearing, smell, and taste sharpen to identify threats

  • Sweating increases to cool the body

  • Blood clotting factors are released to slow bleeding

  • Sugars and fats are released to increase energy

  • Bronchi dilate to get more air into our lungs

  • Breathing gets faster to get more oxygen to muscles

These events are not harmful if they’re occasional. Once we’re out of the stressful situation, the body returns to its normal state and our systems go back to functioning smoothly. But what happens when the source of stress never goes away, or we always feel stressed? The continuous release of stress hormones can take a toll on your bodies, and lead to many long-term health problems:

  • The most significant impact is on our immune system. Our bodies produce immune cells called T lymphocytes, which fight bacteria, infections, and cancer cells. Elevated levels of stress hormones suppress the production of immune cells, making us more susceptible to illnesses and infections, and they can last longer. Stress hormones can also disrupt circadian rhythms, the effect of which is to slow down the healing process. In a study among college students, their cuts healed about 40% slower when under the pressure of exams, versus when the same students were on summer vacation.

  • Our muscles are in a constant state of tension, and that can result in lingering body aches and pains. Furthermore, tension headaches and migraines are often triggered by the tension in our muscles around the shoulders, neck, and head.

  • Because blood is diverted to the muscles, the gastrointestinal system is just about shut down. Stomach peristalsis is reduced and sphincters are closed, and digestion slows. The result can be either diarrhea or constipation. With prolonged stress, such effects on the digestive system can lead to heartburn, GERD, acid reflux, gastritis, ulcers or severe stomach pain even without ulcers.

  • Stress hormones cause the liver to produce more glucose. For most of us, this blood sugar is usually reabsorbed by the body even under constant stress. But for those who are vulnerable, that extra blood sugar can result in diabetes.

  • There’s a higher risk of chronic anxiety, depression, and negative emotions such as anger, irritability, all of which further feed our feelings of stress.  Moreover, it can impair our judgment and memory, weaken our self-esteem, and interfere with our ability to maintain our personal relationships, and leave us feeling we have no control over our lives.

  • You’re at greater risk of hypertension, heart attack or stroke. There’s also a greater likelihood that the coronary arteries will become inflamed, which is how stress is believed to be linked to heart attacks. Chronic stress can cause the release of cholesterol in the blood stream, which can block arteries and also lead to a heart attack.

  • For men, the reproductive system is influenced by the nervous system. The release of stress hormones can affect testosterone production, sperm production and maturation, and even cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. For women, chronic stress can worsen premenstrual symptoms, such as cramping, fluid, bloating, and negative moods, and can affect menstruation, causing irregular cycles, more painful periods, and changes in the length of cycles.  In menopause, symptoms such as hot flashes may be more frequent and more severe. For both men and women, chronic stress can also weaken sexual desire.

  • Other health problems tied to ongoing stress include: permanent loss of hair and skin problems, such as acne, psoriasis and eczema;  fatigue and low energy; insomnia and other sleep problems; chest pain and a rapid heartbeat; ringing in the ear; cold and sweaty hands or feet; and teeth grinding.

Not to put too fine a point on things, but be aware that the above-mentioned effects are cumulative: the longer we suffer chronic stress, the greater will be the long-term harm to our health.

Considering all of this, while we should certainly fear the known killers like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, we should also acknowledge the possibility that many of these illnesses had stress as their underlying catalyst.

As a final note, we often think of stress as being caused by some external event, such as a job, financial pressures, or a bad relationship. That’s often true, and if it is, the health risks are enough to suggest you need to find a way out of such situations if you can — you’ll be happier for it.

If you don’t think your anxiety, depression, sadness and stress impact your physical health, think again. All of these emotions trigger chemical reactions in your body, which can lead to inflammation and a weakened immune system. Learn how to cope, sweet friend. There will always be dark days.

            -Kris Carr

But some external forces are unavoidable, and sometimes our chronic stress is self-induced — if you’re constantly angry at someone or something, worry about everything, are overly confrontational, can’t get behind the wheel without cursing out other drivers, etc., you are the source of your own chronic stress.

Sounds pretty scary — it’s supposed to. Fear can be a great motivator. But there are things you can do to help reduce your stress levels and avoid its damaging consequences. That’s the subject of our next article.

 “That the birds of worry and care fly above your head, this you cannot change. But that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.”

                                      – Chinese Proverb

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