Can stress kill?
Can stress really kill, and if so, why?
— Worried about Stress
Dear Worried about Stress,
Although stress doesn’t usually lead directly to someone’s demise, long-term exposure can increase the chances of developing life-threatening conditions. Stress is an influential force that can either fuel someone through a public speaking engagement or make them feel sick to their stomach. When someone experiences stress, the body signals that there is a threat. This causes the brain, specifically the hypothalamus, to set off a "fight or flight" response. Through a combination of hormone and nerve signals, this response causes the adrenal gland to increase the amount of adrenaline and cortisol released into the bloodstream. In turn, these hormones help increase strength and agility, while also speeding up reaction time. This happens not only in response to negative stressful situations but also in response to positive ones, too (more on that later). If the body’s production of these hormones increases more than normal due to sustained stress, then it can start to negatively impact an individual’s health. Knowing more about how the body responds to chronic stress, some self-care strategies, and who to reach out to for support are all key factors to be aware of in order to minimize any negative health impacts.
When a person experiences stress, the “fight or flight” response begins. In acute stressful situations, this process is a positive one that may give people the boost they need to work harder or avoid danger. In addition, this stress response doesn’t only occur when a person is experiencing negative stress. Positive stress, such as receiving a job promotion, taking a vacation, or learning a new skill, all evoke the same biological response as negatively stressful situation. Interestingly though, the body isn’t always able to distinguish between positive and life-threatening events. The body registers that a stressful event has occurred and begins responding, regardless of whether the stress is due to an event that is exciting or threatening. When a person experiences chronic stress, the body releases more hormones than usual and the equilibrium is thrown off. If this process is constant due to chronic stress, the body never gets the recovery time it needs between stressful situations.
The increased levels of hormones from chronic stress can trigger responses in the body that increase risk factors for obesity, insomnia, and digestive complaints. Additionally, the increased levels of cortisol can raise a person’s risk for autoimmune diseases or aggravate autoimmune ailments that they already have, as cortisol suppresses the body’s immune response. Those with autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, may experience flare-ups when subjected to constant stress. What’s more, chronic stress is related to six of the top causes of death including cirrhosis of the liver, heart disease, lung ailments, accidents, cancer, and suicide. Some of other common side effects of stress include:
- Anxiety and depression
- Increased blood pressure
- Memory impairment
- Upset stomach
- Chest pain
- Change in sex drive
However, each person experiences stress differently. Factors such as life experiences and genetic makeup all affect a person’s relationship with stress. Inherited traits may make one person more susceptible to a negative reaction to stress than another. Traumatic events in a person’s life can also factor in how an individual deals with stress, as people who faced extreme stress during their childhood are more likely to be vulnerable to stress as adults.
Just as a person’s stressors and experiences with them are unique, how they cope with them is also unique — what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for someone else. Talking about stressors with someone else may be helpful, as an outside view may provide a new perspective that would’ve been hard to realize without their help. Approaching a friend or family member to talk with may help diffuse stressful situations or anxiety. Additionally, there are ways to engage in everyday activities that can help keep stress levels manageable in the first place. They can include activities such as:
- Eating a balanced diet
- Getting enough quality sleep
- Being physically active
- Meditating or practicing yoga
- Spending time with a hobby or picking up a new one
Both lists adapted from Mayo Clinic.
In addition, a health promotion professional can help advise on how to build these behaviors into a regular routine of self-care.
However, if stress is interfering with day-to-day activities, interrupting sleep, or causing you to not feel well physically, it may be useful to consult a health care provider or a mental health professional. Part of keeping stress in check is a determination to keep it from becoming overwhelming. If you're looking to learn more about stress and how to cope with it, you may find the Go Ask Alice! Stress Fact Sheet to be helpful. Ultimately, supporting both the mind and body, especially when stress appears in multiple life arenas, is the best defense.
Originally published Dec 06, 1996
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