Need another thing to get stressed out about? Your stress itself could be making you sick.
“Stress doesn’t only make us feel awful emotionally,” says Jay Winner, MD, author of Take the Stress Out of Your Life and director of the Stress Management Program for Sansum Clinic in Santa Barbara, Calif. “It can also exacerbate just about any health condition you can think of.”
Studies have found many health problems related to stress. Stress seems to worsen or increase the risk of conditions like obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and asthma.
Before you get too stressed out about being stressed out, there is some good news. Following some simple stress relief tips could both lower your stress and lower your health risks.
10 Health Problems Related to Stress
What are some of the most significant health problems related to stress? Here’s a sampling.
- Heart disease. Researchers have long suspected that the stressed-out, type A personality has a higher risk of high blood pressure and heart problems. We don’t know why, exactly. Stress can directly increase heart rate and blood flow, and causes the release of cholesterol and triglycerides into the blood stream. It’s also possible that stress is related to other problems — an increased likelihood of smoking or obesity — that indirectly increase the heart risks.
Doctors do know that sudden emotional stress can be a trigger for serious cardiac problems, including heart attacks. People who have chronic heart problems need to avoid acute stress — and learn how to successfully manage life’s unavoidable stresses — as much as they can.
- Asthma. Many studies have shown that stress can worsen asthma. Some evidence suggests that a parent’s chronic stress might even increase the risk of developing asthma in their children. One study looked at how parental stress affected the asthma rates of young children who were also exposed to air pollution or whose mothers smoked during pregnancy. The kids with stressed out parents had a substantially higher risk of developing asthma.
- Obesity. Excess fat in the belly seems to pose greater health risks than fat on the legs or hips — and unfortunately, that’s just where people with high stress seem to store it. “Stress causes higher levels of the hormone cortisol,” says Winner, “and that seems to increase the amount of fat that’s deposited in the abdomen.”
- Diabetes. Stress can worsen diabetes in two ways. First, it increases the likelihood of bad behaviors, such as unhealthy eating and excessive drinking. Second, stress seems to raise the glucose levels of people with type 2 diabetes directly.
- Headaches. Stress is considered one of the most common triggers for headaches — not just tension headaches, but migraines as well.
- Depression and anxiety. It’s probably no surprise that chronic stress is connected with higher rates of depression and anxiety. One survey of recent studies found that people who had stress related to their jobs — like demanding work with few rewards — had an 80% higher risk of developing depression within a few years than people with lower stress.
- Gastrointestinal problems. Here’s one thing that stress doesn’t do — it doesn’t cause ulcers. However, it can make them worse. Stress is also a common factor in many other GI conditions, such as chronic heartburn (or gastroesophageal reflux disease, GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Winner says.
- Alzheimer’s disease. One animal study found that stress might worsen Alzheimer’s disease, causing its brain lesions to form more quickly. Some researchers speculate that reducing stress has the potential to slow down the progression of the disease.
- Accelerated aging. There’s actually evidence that stress can affect how you age. One study compared the DNA of mothers who were under high stress — they were caring for a chronically ill child — with women who were not. Researchers found that a particular region of the chromosomes showed the effects of accelerated aging. Stress seemed to accelerate aging about 9 to 17 additional years.
- Premature death. A study looked at the health effects of stress by studying elderly caregivers looking after their spouses — people who are naturally under a great deal of stress. It found that caregivers had a 63% higher rate of death than people their age who were not caregivers.
Still, you might be wondering why. Why would stress make us sick? Why would an emotional feeling wreck havoc on our bodies?
Stress isn’t only a feeling. “Stress isn’t just in your head,” Winner says. It’s a built-in physiologic response to a threat. When you’re stressed, your body responds. Your blood vessels constrict. Your blood pressure and pulse rise. You breathe faster. Your bloodstream is flooded with hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
“When you’re chronically stressed, those physiologic changes, over time, can lead to health problems,” Winner tells WebMD.
Stress Management Works
While the number of health problems related to stress might be alarming, don’t despair. Studies suggest that stress management techniques will not only make you feel better, but they might have concrete health benefits.
For instance, one study of heart attack survivors found that taking a stress management class slashed their risks of a second cardiac event by 74%. There’s even some evidence that stress management will improve immunity.
Still, many of us remain skeptical about stress management. After all, our lives are just plain stressful. We have busy jobs, families to raise, tight finances, and no time to spare. Stress management might seem like a nice idea, but completely impossible.
It’s true that you might not be able to remove all the stressful things from your life. But you can change how you respond to them, Winner says. That’s what stress management is all about. Learning some basic stress relief techniques isn’t difficult, either.
4 Ways to Fight Back Against Stress — and Improve Your Health
The next time you feel stressed, here are four stress relief tips you can try.
- Breathe deeply. Just a few minutes of deep breathing can calm you and tame the physiologic stress response, Winner says. While building in a specific time to relax each day is a good idea, one advantage to deep breathing for stress relief is that you can do it anywhere — at your desk or in your (parked) car, for instance.
Winner recommends that as you breathe out, you relax a specific muscle group. Start with the muscles in your jaw. On the next breath out, relax your shoulders. Move through the different areas of your body until you’re feeling calm.
- Focus on the moment. When you’re stressed, you’re probably living in the future or the past. You’re worried about what to do next or regretful about something you’ve already done. To get some stress relief, instead try focusing on what you’re doing right now.
“You can calm yourself by bringing yourself back to the present moment,” says Winner. “If you’re walking, feel the sensation of your legs moving. If you’re eating, focus on the taste and the sensation of the food.”
- Reframe the situation. So you’re already running late and then find yourself stuck in terrible traffic. Getting worked up is a natural reaction, but it won’t help you at all. Rather than swearing and pounding the steering wheel, get a different perspective. Look at that time as an opportunity — a few minutes to yourself where you don’t have any other obligations.
- Keep your problems in perspective. It might seem Pollyannaish, but the next time you’re feeling stressed out, think about the things for which you’re grateful.
“We get stressed when we focus so much on a specific problem that we lose perspective,” says Winner. “You need to remind yourself of the basic ways in which you’re lucky — that you have family and friends, that you can see, that you can walk.” It can be a surprisingly effective method for stress relief.
While these stress management techniques can help in the moment, you can also make a few larger changes to your way of life. Regular exercise is key to long-term stress management, says Winner. People who exercise tend to have better moods and more energy than people who don’t. What’s more, regular exercise will independently lower your risks for many health problems.
Learning some relaxation techniques, meditation, or yoga will help with stress management, too. Getting good at any of these approaches will take a little time and practice, but the payoff — for your short-term mood and long-term health — could be substantial.