How long-term stress can damage your health

Mental Health

by Mark Hinds, MD

May 14, 2018

Everyone experiences stress from time to time. The amount might vary from day to day, or we might go through extended periods of stressful times in our lives. For some of us, it’s our job. For others, it might be finances, marital discord or the unexpected death of a loved one.

Stress is unavoidable to some degree. For almost all of us, it is simply a part of life. And I think that to some degree, this is normal. I like to think of life as a journey. Going through the difficult times can help us grow, right? Maybe so — but it might not feel that way, say, when you get laid off from your job. That happened recently to a friend of mine who continues to struggle to find work.

As a primary care physician, that got me thinking: does stress adversely affect our overall health? Well, the answer to that is yes and no.

What is chronic stress?

For most of us, some acute stress is not necessarily a bad thing. It can actually serve as a motivator to get important things done. Worrying about an upcoming test in college or medical school was always stressful to me, but I knew the solution was to buckle down and study so that I could learn the material. We deal with these little stresses all the time — they’re just a part of life and not really damaging to our health.

Long-term, or chronic, stress is a little different. The list of potential causes is very long. We see them in our daily lives and in the news all the time. It may be some of the ones I mentioned above, but it could also be related to abuse (physical, sexual or emotional), homelessness, unemployment or war, as well as many, many others.

When you think about the effects of this stress, you likely think about the psychological effects first. It’s easy to see how long-term periods of stress could lead to issues like anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

But this stress can also have a long-term impact on your physical health.

The connection between stress and physical health

When we’re stressed, our bodies go into “fight or flight” mode, as our sympathetic nervous system is activated. When this occurs for a long period of time, it can lead to elevated blood pressure, thickening of the walls of arteries, enlargement of the heart (hypertrophy) and cholesterol plaque formation. Both men and women who experience chronic stress have a higher risk of symptomatic heart disease and hypertension. The prognosis of coronary artery disease in women is also worse for those experiencing marital stress.

And that’s not all. The risk of upper respiratory viral infections increases in individuals exposed to chronic stress lasting more than one month. HIV infection also progresses more quickly. Other chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and eczema tend to be more symptomatic as well.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea — over long periods of time, stress takes a toll.

Life certainly has its ups and downs. Clearly there’s not a way to eliminate all major stress from our lives. That would be a thing called “utopia,” and we’re certainly a long way from that in this world.

But there are little things you can do to simplify and enjoy your life, and lower the effects of stress on both your mental and physical health. Individuals who have a degree of spirituality in their lives tend to handle chronic stress a little better than those who don’t. A few other things you can do: Spend time with your family. Do the best you can to have a good family support system. Plan for your financial future. Eat healthy. Be kind to other people. Find ways to relax. Get a pet.

But most of all, remember that your psychological and physical health are connected. If you’re worried about either one, or both, talk to your doctor.

Don’t have a primary care physician? Find one near you.

About the Author

Mark Hinds, MD, is a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Hillcrest. He has practiced outpatient and hospital medicine in Waco since 1995. He attended medical school at UT Health Science Center San Antonio and completed his residency in Waco. He currently lives in Crawford, Texas, with his wife Michelle.

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