6 Health Risks of Chronic Stress
Chronic stress is a long-term, persistent sense of stress that can adversely impact your health if left untreated. It may be brought on by the responsibilities of daily life, such as work or family, or by terrifying events.
The body is designed to protect you from life-threatening situations. This self-protective mechanism is called the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, which responds to physical or psychological stress by activating the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The ANS governs split-second, reflexive actions that it believes will best save your life. It takes these life-saving actions without your conscious thought or consent before you have a chance to evaluate the threat.
For example, if you’re walking along the side of the road and see a car barreling toward you, you’ll instantly try to dive out of the way. But if you had to think about it, your reaction time would be much too slow, and you’d almost certainly be injured or killed.
The Fight-or-Flight Stress Response
What happens to your body during the fight-or-flight stress response?
The second the ANS recognizes a threat in the environment—and the ANS is constantly scanning the environment for signs of danger—it initiates a release of epinephrine and cortisol to prepare your body to fight or flee the threat, resulting in the following symptoms:
- Increased heart rate
- Quickened breathing
- Heightened alertness
- Increased energy due to a release of glucose
- Widened airways in the lungs for increased oxygen intake
- Redirected blood flow to the skeletal muscles from other systems to prepare the body to fight or flee the threat.
After you've survived the threat and are safe, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, returning the body to pre-fight or flight status. It governs the “rest and digest” function, calming the body down.
The stress response is designed to protect you and not last for hours, days, or years. When emotional or physical stress is prolonged, it impairs nearly every bodily system. Chronic stress can result in numerous mental and physical health problems.
Symptoms of Chronic Stress
You may not think about the symptoms of chronic stress, perhaps beyond a pounding heartbeat once in a while. You likely believe that stress does not cause many signs and symptoms.
But the American Institute of Stress reports that being chronically stressed can cause more than 50 symptoms, the most common being depression, headaches, irritability, insomnia, and anxiety.
Below are a few more symptoms of chronic stress.
- Brain fog
- Trouble concentrating or focusing
- Headaches, joint pain, aching lower back
- Weight gain due to cortisol triggering cravings for junk foods
- Sexual dysfunction
- Menstrual changes, such as missed periods or increased PMS
- Hair loss
- Increased use of tobacco or alcohol
- Angry outbursts
- Poor memory
- Depressed mood
- Poor quality sleep
6 Health Conditions that Chronic Stress May Help Cause or Worsen
Experts believe chronic stress may contribute to most of today’s mental and physical health conditions. According to research, the following six conditions are the most typical ones that chronic stress may either cause or worsen.
1. Common Cold
The common cold is a contagious viral upper respiratory infection that causes inflammation in your nose, throat, sinuses, and windpipe. More than 200 viruses are known to contribute to the common cold. Still, the most prevalent one in adults is the rhinovirus, which comprises approximately 30% to 35% of all adult colds (1).
How common is the common cold?
An estimated 1 billion people in the United States catch the common cold each year, mainly in the winter and spring. According to the American Lung Association, adults average two to four colds yearly, while young children average six to eight (1, 2).
Chronic stress can significantly increase your susceptibility to the common cold due to its effect on your immune system. So you see, managing stress is essential, as it can weaken your immune system and increase your chances of contracting infectious diseases such as colds. Numerous research studies show that stress weakens the immune system.
For example, researchers conducted an experiment in which 420 volunteers were exposed to the common cold virus, and those who experienced higher stress levels (measured through surveys on stressful life events, perceived stress, and mood) were more likely to get sick. This data was presented in a 2004 International Congress of Behavioral Medicine keynote address and published in The New England Journal of Medicine (3).
In another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 154 healthy men and 266 healthy women were evaluated for their degrees of psychological stress and then exposed to one of five cold viruses or a placebo. (The participants did not know whether they were exposed to a cold virus or placebo.)
The results? The researchers concluded:
“Psychological stress was associated in a dose-response manner with an increased risk of acute infectious respiratory illness, and this risk was attributable to increased rates of infection rather than an increased frequency of symptoms after infection.” (4)
In other words, the researchers found that “The rates of both respiratory infection…and clinical colds… increased in a dose-response manner with increases in the degree of psychological stress.” (4)
So, the more stressed the participants were, the more likely they were to catch respiratory infections or the common cold.
Therefore, if you want to reduce your infection rate from the cold virus, you must reduce your stress levels.
2. Cardiovascular Disease
Cardiovascular disease is a blanket term for various conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels, including coronary artery disease (the most common) and cerebrovascular disease (stroke).
Coronary heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death globally. In 2019, coronary heart disease, the leading cause of heart attacks, killed an estimated 8.9 million people globally, and stroke killed 6.2 million (5).
It turns out that stress significantly affects the heart and blood vessels.
You see, the heart and blood vessels work together to supply the body's organs with nourishment and oxygen. So when the body experiences acute stress, such as rushing to meet a last-minute deadline at work, helping your child complete a school project due the next day, or running late for a meeting, the heart rate increases and the heart muscles contract more strongly.
Stress hormones, including adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol, act as messengers to produce these effects. Blood vessels that direct blood to large muscles and the heart dilate, pumping more blood to these areas and increasing blood pressure. As you may know, this is the well-known fight-or-flight response. Once the episode of acute stress passes, the body returns to its normal state.
Continual stress can lead to ongoing issues for the heart and blood vessels. Consistent elevation of heart rate, stress hormones, and blood pressure can cause harm to the body over time. This long-term stress can increase the risk of hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.
In addition, chronic stress can trigger a compulsion to eat starchy and sugary “comfort foods,” like pastries, pizza, and candy. If indulged too often, these foods can lead to weight gain and obesity, increasing cardiovascular disease risk.
3. Depression and Other Mood Disorders
Depression is an everyday mood or mental disorder affecting an estimated 14.8 million U.S. adults aged 18 or older (6). (Specifically, these individuals experience at least one major depressive episode during the year, significantly impairing their ability to function.)
This condition is characterized by persistent sadness, a loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyable or rewarding activities, and disturbed sleep and appetite. There may also be fatigue and poor concentration. Indeed, depression can adversely affect a person's ability to function. As a result, it is the leading cause of disability worldwide (6).
Though the exact cause of depression is unknown at this time, there is scientific evidence that significantly heightened stress levels can trigger it. In addition, current and past traumatic stress may trigger severe depressive episodes.
Indeed, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reports that around 20% to 25% of people experiencing a severe stressful event are at significantly increased risk of developing depression.
4. Poor Digestion or Gastrointestinal Issues
Did you know that the gut contains millions of neurons that can function independently and constantly communicate with the brain? This is why we can experience those "butterflies" in our stomachs when we’re nervous. It’s why some people get stomach pain or cramps and may even vomit when stressed.
Unfortunately, stress can disrupt this communication between the brain and gut, leading to increased discomfort, such as pain and bloating. Additionally, the gut is home to millions of bacteria that can impact both gut and brain health, affecting our emotions and ability to think. In fact, stress can even cause changes in gut bacteria, which can impact our mood.
It's clear that the gut and brain strongly influence each other, both through nerves and bacteria.
Indeed, stress worsens the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), one of the most common gastrointestinal tract disorders that affect between 25 million and 45 million people in the U.S. (7) The symptoms of IBS include abdominal discomfort, cramping, indigestion, excessive gas, diarrhea, constipation, or diarrhea alternative with constipation.
According to WebMD, an estimated 60% of IBS patients have generalized anxiety disorder (8), which increases psychological stress. Experts are not sure how stress is related to IBS, but there is a definite connection that cannot be ignored.
5. Muscle Pain
When stress affects the body, muscles tend to become tense. This is a natural response to stress as the body tries to protect itself from injury and pain. However, in some cases of sudden stress, muscles tense up all at once and relax when the stress is gone.
However, chronic stress can cause the muscles to remain tense, leading to stress-related disorders and other reactions in the body. For example, chronic muscle tension in the neck, shoulders, and head area is associated with tension-type and migraine headaches. Stress and job-related anxiety have also been linked to musculoskeletal pain in the lower back and upper extremities.
Back pain is a common issue for millions of people. In fact, around 83% of U.S. adults with back pain have visited a doctor at least once in the past year, and nearly 65 million Americans report a recent back pain issue (9).
But your back pain may not be caused by physical injury. For example, in an observational study of 8,473 Korean people, researchers discovered that the participants who were severely stressed were more than twice as likely to develop chronic lower back pain compared to what would be expected in the general population (10).
Diabetes is a chronic disease characterized by impaired body production or blood sugar (glucose) use. According to the CDC, 37 million U.S. adults have diabetes, and 96 million have prediabetes (11).
There are two primary kinds: type 1 and type 2.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease where the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys the beta cells in the pancreas, resulting in insufficient production of insulin, a hormone needed to reduce glucose levels in the bloodstream.
Type 2 diabetes is typically a diet and lifestyle-driven disease caused by insulin resistance, where the cells cannot use most of the insulin produced.
Studies show that stress may increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and it may increase blood glucose levels in both type 1 and type 2. How does this happen?
As part of the “fight-or-flight” response, the body releases extra glucose to provide the energy you need to defeat or escape the threat. If the stress is short-term, the glucose levels return to normal shortly after the danger has passed (12).
But chronic stress can result in chronically elevated blood glucose levels, which can eventually lead to the development of type 2 diabetes or a worsening of your condition due to excess glucose.
The best way to avert the health risks of chronic stress is to manage your stress levels.
Here are a few tips to help you reduce stress. Try to practice at least one of these tips daily, especially after a particularly stressful event.
- Put more physical activity into your day, every day. Many research studies show that exercise reduces stress and improves your mood. So, take a 15 to 30-minute walk each day. Or, go swimming or golfing. Join an aerobics class at your local gym.
- Practice yoga. Yoga is an ancient mind and body practice that relieves stress and improves cognitive function.
- Meditate. Once an exclusively Eastern practice, meditation has become popular in the West for its ability to clear the mind and calm the nerves. But some people shy away from meditation because they’ve heard you must clear your mind. That’s not true. Instead, meditation increases the ability to focus on specific thoughts. You can also simply notice your thoughts as they come and go without becoming attached to any of them. As a result, meditation has been proven to improve focus, improve tranquility, and decrease stress.
- Practice breathing exercises.
- Do progressive muscle exercises every night before bed.
- Eat a nutritious whole-food diet, such as the Mediterranean Diet.
- Spend time in nature. The sunshine and greenery can significantly reduce stress levels.
- Go out with friends.
- Listen to uplifting music.
- Avoid reading or listening to “bad” news, which means avoiding watching or reading any news outlets, including TV and the Internet.
- Get a dog or cat.
- Get at least 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night
- Pick up a relaxing hobby, like painting or reading
- Keep a “gratitude journal” where you write everything you’re grateful for daily. You may think you don’t have much to be thankful for, but if you look around, you’ll find many positive things to write about in your journal. Plus, the more you write, the more you’ll be grateful for. It’s like magic.
- Do something nice for a stranger without expecting anything in return.
- Volunteer at a local shelter
Experiencing stress is common and can even be beneficial in some cases. However, it's likely to be chronic stress if you suffer from prolonged symptoms such as fatigue, indigestion, brain fog, or insomnia. This type of stress can negatively impact both your physical and mental health. Some everyday stressors include financial concerns, work-related issues, and health problems.
Fortunately, there are ways to manage stress, even when your challenges seem insurmountable. Incorporating stress-relieving activities such as exercise, keeping a gratitude journal, meditation, yoga, and getting sunlight can all be helpful.