What health problems can stress cause?

Top 5 Stress-Related Health Conditions

Stress is a given in modern-day living. It can also pose a threat to one’s health depending on how much stress the body absorbs— and how well a person can handle the pressure.

The U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) notes that stress can be beneficial by helping people “develop the skills they need to cope with and adapt to new and potentially threatening situations.”

But the CDC adds that these benefits end when someone becomes overwhelmed by stress from daily pressures or a traumatic event—and it threatens their health.

“Stress can aggravate or worsen just about any existing health conditions, or create new problems such as anxiety, headaches, muscle aches and even shortness of breathe from hyperventilating,” said Yariela Enriquez, M.D., who practices internal medicine for the Baptist Health Medical Group. “It’s important to treat the stress to help you overcome underlying health problems, such as high blood pressure, digestive problems and risk factors for heart disease.”

Feeling emotional or nervous, or having trouble sleeping and eating are all normal reactions to stress. So are excessive eating, drinking and smoking, which can all contribute to a decline in health.

Engaging in healthy activities, such as regular exercise and nutritious meals, and getting the right care and support, can help people overcome stress, the CDC says.

Here are the top 5 conditions that can be exasperated by stress:

  1. Heart Disease. It is unclear why some people are more affected than others by stress, but researchers have found that a “Type A” personality carries a higher risk of high blood pressure and heart problems. Stress can have an impact on increasing heart rate and blood flow. It can also cause the release of cholesterol and triglycerides into the blood. Researchers are currently studying whether managing stress is effective for heart disease, says the American Heart Association (AHA). After a heart attack or stroke, people who feel depressed, anxious or overwhelmed by stress should talk to their doctor or other healthcare professionals, the AHA says.
  2. Belly Fat/Obesity. Too much fat in the belly reportedly poses higher health risks than fat deposits in legs or hips. And people who are more stressed seemed to have a greater propensity for storing fat in the belly. Binge-eating habits are often tied to stress. And obesity caused by stress-fueled eating habits can lead to serious health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.
  3. Gastrointestinal Problems. Stress does not cause ulcers, but it can create or aggravate digestive problems for individuals with common GI issues, especially chronic heartburn (gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Several factors — both biological and psychological — contribute to gastrointestinal disorders. Numerous studies have suggested that stress may be particularly important in controlling these chronic conditions.
  4. Depression and Anxiety. Stress can be a major factor in anxiety and depression. A survey of recent studies found that people who were stressed out at their jobs had an 80 percent higher risk of developing depression over time, compared to workers with lower stress.
  5. Diabetes. Stress can harm those already diagnosed with diabetes. It can cause people to binge on unhealthy foods high in carbohydrates, and that scenario can cause glucose levels to surge. People who are pre-disposed to diabetes, either through a family history or lifestyle habits, can increase their risk by stress-induced overeating.

“When it comes to stress, the good news is that you can treat and diminish its causes and your underlying health will likely improve as long as you are taking care of other risk factors,” Dr. Enriquez said.

Tags: community health, exercise, healthy habits, heart disease, stress management

Stress

Stress is usually a reaction to mental or emotional pressure. It’s often related to feeling like you’re losing control over something, but sometimes there’s no obvious cause.

When you’re feeling anxious or scared, your body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.

This can be helpful for some people and stress might help you get things done or feel more motivated.

But it might also cause physical symptoms such as a faster heartbeat or sweating. If you’re stressed all the time it can become a problem.

Identifying the cause

If you know what’s causing your stress it might be easier to find ways to manage it.

Some examples of things that may cause stress include:

  • work – feeling pressure at work, unemployment or retirement
  • family – relationship difficulties, divorce or caring for someone
  • financial problems – unexpected bills or borrowing money
  • health – illness, injury or losing someone (bereavement)

Even significant life events such as buying a house, having a baby or planning a wedding could lead to feelings of stress.

You might find it hard to explain to people why you feel this way, but talking to someone could help you find a solution.

Find out about the 5 steps to mental wellbeing.

10 Health Problems Related to Stress

What are some of the most significant health problems related to stress? Here’s a sampling.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.
  5. Headaches. Stress is considered one of the most common triggers for headaches — not just tension headaches, but migraines as well.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

What is Stress?

2014 Stress Statistics

Statistic Verification

Source: American Psychological Association, American Institute of Stress

Research Date: 7.8.2014

Top Causes of Stress in the U.S.
Cause Factors
1 Job Pressure Co-Worker Tension, Bosses, Work Overload
2 Money Loss of Job, Reduced Retirement, Medical Expenses
3 Health Health Crisis, Terminal or Chronic Illness
4 Relationships Divorce, Death of Spouse, Arguments with Friends, Loneliness
5 Poor Nutrition Inadequate Nutrition, Caffeine, Processed Foods, Refined Sugars
6 Media Overload Television, Radio, Internet, E-Mail, Social Networking
7 Sleep Deprivation Inability to release adrenaline and other stress hormones
U.S Stress Statistics Data
Percent of people who regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress 77 %
Regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress 73 %
Feel they are living with extreme stress 33 %
Feel their stress has increased over the past five years 48 %
Cited money and work as the leading cause of their stress 76 %
Reported lying awake at night due to stress 48 %
Stress Impact Statistics
Percent who say stress has a negative impact on their personal and professional life 48 %
Employed adults who say they have difficulty managing work and family responsibilities. 31 %
Percent who cited jobs interfering with their family or personal time as a significant source of stress. 35 %
Perccent who said stress has caused them to fight with people close to them 54 %
Reported being alienated from a friend or family member because of stress 26 %
Annual costs to employers in stress related health care and missed work. $300 Billion
Percent who say they are “always” or “often” under stress at work 30 %
People who cited physical symptoms experienced the following
Fatigue 51 %
Headache 44 %
Upset stomach 34 %
Muscle tension 30 %
Change in appetite 23 %
Teeth grinding 17 %
Change in sex drive 15 %
Feeling dizzy 13 %
People who cited psychological symptoms experienced the following
Irritability or anger 50 %
Feeling nervous 45 %
Lack of energy 45 %
Feeling as though you could cry 35 %

General Stress Response

Hans Selye defined stress as the body’s nonspecific response to any demand, whether it is caused by or results in pleasant or unpleasant stimuli. It is essential to differentiate between the unpleasant or harmful variety of stress termed distress, which often connotes disease, and eustress, which often connotes euphoria. During both eustress and distress, the body undergoes virtually the same non-specific responses to the various positive or negative stimuli acting upon it. However, eustress causes much less damage than distress. This demonstrates conclusively that it is how an individual accepts stress that determines ultimately whether the person can adapt successfully to change. Selye hypothesized a General Adaptation or Stress Syndrome; this General Stress Syndrome affects the whole body. Stress always manifests itself by a syndrome, a sum of changes, not by simply one change.

There are three components to the General Stress Syndrome. The first stage, which is termed the alarm stage, represents a mobilization of the body’s defensive forces. In other words, the body is preparing for the “fight or flight” syndrome. This involves a number of hormones and chemical excreted at high levels, as well as an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration, respiration rate, etc. In the second phase — the stage of resistance — the body becomes adaptive to the challenge and even begins to resist it. The length of this stage of resistance is dependent upon the body’s innate and stored adaptation energy reserves and upon the intensity of the stressor. Just as any machine wears out even if it has been properly maintained, so do living organisms that sooner or later become the victim of this constant wear and tear. The acquired adaptation is lost if the individual is subject to still greater exposure to the stressor. The organism enters into the third and final stage — the exhaustion stage — and then dies because it has used up its resources of adaptation energy. Thankfully, few people ever experience this last stage!

Stress diseases are maladies caused principally by errors in the body’s general adaptation process. They will not occur when all the body’s regulatory processes are properly checked and balanced. They will not develop when adaptation is facilitated by improved perception and interpretation. The biggest problems with derailing the General Stress Syndrome and causing disease is an absolute excess, deficiency, or disequilibrium in the amount of adaptive hormones — for example, corticoid, ACTH, and growth hormones produced during stress. Unfortunately, if stress is induced chronically, our defense response lowers its resistance since fewer antibodies are produced and an inflammatory response dwindles.

Physiology of the Stress Response

You’re sitting in traffic, late for an important meeting, watching the minutes tick away. Your hypothalamus, a tiny control tower in your brain, decides to send out the order: Send in the stress hormones! These stress hormones are the same ones that trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response. Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles ready for action. This response was designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly. But when the stress response keeps firing, day after day, it could put your health at serious risk.

Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to life experiences. Everyone expresses stress from time to time. Anything from everyday responsibilities like work and family to serious life events such as a new diagnosis, war, or the death of a loved one can trigger stress. For immediate, short-term situations, stress can be beneficial to your health. It can help you cope with potentially serious situations. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates and ready your muscles to respond.

Yet if your stress response doesn’t stop firing, and these stress levels stay elevated far longer than is necessary for survival, it can take a toll on your health. Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms and affect your overall well-being. Symptoms of chronic stress include:

  • irritability
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • headaches
  • insomnia

Your central nervous system (CNS) is in charge of your “fight or flight” response. In your brain, the hypothalamus gets the ball rolling, telling your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rev up your heartbeat and send blood rushing to the areas that need it most in an emergency, such as your muscles, heart, and other important organs.

When the perceived fear is gone, the hypothalamus should tell all systems to go back to normal. If the CNS fails to return to normal, or if the stressor doesn’t go away, the response will continue.

Chronic stress is also a factor in behaviors such as overeating or not eating enough, alcohol or drug abuse, and social withdrawal.

Stress hormones affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. During the stress response, you breathe faster in an effort to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood to your body. If you already have a breathing problem like asthma or emphysema, stress can make it even harder to breathe.

Under stress, your heart also pumps faster. Stress hormones cause your blood vessels to constrict and divert more oxygen to your muscles so you’ll have more strength to take action. But this also raises your blood pressure.

As a result, frequent or chronic stress will make your heart work too hard for too long. When your blood pressure rises, so do your risks for having a stroke or heart attack.

Under stress, your liver produces extra blood sugar (glucose) to give you a boost of energy. If you’re under chronic stress, your body may not be able to keep up with this extra glucose surge. Chronic stress may increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate can also upset your digestive system. You’re more likely to have heartburn or acid reflux thanks to an increase in stomach acid. Stress doesn’t cause ulcers (a bacterium called H. pylori often does), but it can increase your risk for them and cause existing ulcers to act up.

Stress can also affect the way food moves through your body, leading to diarrhea or constipation. You might also experience nausea, vomiting, or a stomachache.

Your muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury when you’re stressed. They tend to release again once you relax, but if you’re constantly under stress, your muscles may not get the chance to relax. Tight muscles cause headaches, back and shoulder pain, and body aches. Over time, this can set off an unhealthy cycle as you stop exercising and turn to pain medication for relief.

Stress is exhausting for both the body and mind. It’s not unusual to lose your desire when you’re under constant stress. While short-term stress may cause men to produce more of the male hormone testosterone, this effect doesn’t last.

If stress continues for a long time, a man’s testosterone levels can begin to drop. This can interfere with sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. Chronic stress may also increase risk of infection for male reproductive organs like the prostate and testes.

For women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle. It can lead to irregular, heavier, or more painful periods. Chronic stress can also magnify the physical symptoms of menopause.

Stress stimulates the immune system, which can be a plus for immediate situations. This stimulation can help you avoid infections and heal wounds. But over time, stress hormones will weaken your immune system and reduce your body’s response to foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections. Stress can also increase the time it takes you to recover from an illness or injury.

Links

The following list of topic links are historically of great interest to guests of AIS:

Is there proof of a connection between stress and cancer- or anything else?

Stress and Heart Diesease

The Disease of Civilization

Stress and Hypertension

Anitdepressants/ Depression

Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation for Treatment of Anxiety, Depression, and Insomnia

How stress influences disease: Study reveals inflammation as the culprit

A research team led by Carnegie Mellon University’s Sheldon Cohen has found that chronic psychological stress is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research shows for the first time that the effects of psychological stress on the body’s ability to regulate inflammation can promote the development and progression of disease.

“Inflammation is partly regulated by the hormone cortisol and when cortisol is not allowed to serve this function, inflammation can get out of control,” said Cohen, the Robert E. Doherty Professor of Psychology within CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Cohen argued that prolonged stress alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate the inflammatory response because it decreases tissue sensitivity to the hormone. Specifically, immune cells become insensitive to cortisol’s regulatory effect. In turn, runaway inflammation is thought to promote the development and progression of many diseases.

Cohen, whose groundbreaking early work showed that people suffering from psychological stress are more susceptible to developing common colds, used the common cold as the model for testing his theory. With the common cold, symptoms are not caused by the virus — they are instead a “side effect” of the inflammatory response that is triggered as part of the body’s effort to fight infection. The greater the body’s inflammatory response to the virus, the greater is the likelihood of experiencing the symptoms of a cold.

In Cohen’s first study, after completing an intensive stress interview, 276 healthy adults were exposed to a virus that causes the common cold and monitored in quarantine for five days for signs of infection and illness. Here, Cohen found that experiencing a prolonged stressful event was associated with the inability of immune cells to respond to hormonal signals that normally regulate inflammation. In turn, those with the inability to regulate the inflammatory response were more likely to develop colds when exposed to the virus.

In the second study, 79 healthy participants were assessed for their ability to regulate the inflammatory response and then exposed to a cold virus and monitored for the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, the chemical messengers that trigger inflammation. He found that those who were less able to regulate the inflammatory response as assessed before being exposed to the virus produced more of these inflammation-inducing chemical messengers when they were infected.

“The immune system’s ability to regulate inflammation predicts who will develop a cold, but more importantly it provides an explanation of how stress can promote disease,” Cohen said. “When under stress, cells of the immune system are unable to respond to hormonal control, and consequently, produce levels of inflammation that promote disease. Because inflammation plays a role in many diseases such as cardiovascular, asthma and autoimmune disorders, this model suggests why stress impacts them as well.”

He added, “Knowing this is important for identifying which diseases may be influenced by stress and for preventing disease in chronically stressed people.”

In addition to Cohen, the research team included CMU’s Denise Janicki-Deverts, research psychologist; Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh’s William J. Doyle; University of British Columbia’s Gregory E. Miller; University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s Bruce S. Rabin and Ellen Frank; and the University of Virginia Health Sciences Center’s Ronald B. Turner.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institute of Mental Health, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health funded this research.

Stress effects on the body

Musculoskeletal system

When the body is stressed, muscles tense up. Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress — the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain.

With sudden onset stress, the muscles tense up all at once, and then release their tension when the stress passes. Chronic stress

causes the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of guardedness. When muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions of the body and even promote stress-related disorders. For example, both tension-type headache and migraine headache are associated with chronic muscle tension in the area of the shoulders, neck and head. Musculoskeletal pain in the low back and upper extremities has also been linked to stress, especially job stress.

Millions of individuals suffer from chronic painful conditions secondary to musculoskeletal disorders. Often, but not always, there may be an injury that sets off the chronic painful state. What determines whether or not an injured person goes on to suffer from chronic pain is how they respond to the injury. Individuals who are fearful of pain and re-injury, and who seek only a physical cause and cure for the injury, generally have a worse recovery than individuals who maintain a certain level of moderate, physician-supervised activity. Muscle tension, and eventually, muscle atrophy due to disuse of the body, all promote chronic, stress-related musculoskeletal conditions.

Relaxation techniques and other stress-relieving activities and therapies have been shown to effectively reduce muscle tension, decrease the incidence of certain stress-related disorders, such as headache, and increase a sense of well-being. For those who develop chronic pain conditions, stress-relieving activities have been shown to improve mood and daily function.

Respiratory system

The respiratory system supplies oxygen to cells and removes carbon dioxide waste from the body. Air comes in through the nose and goes through the larynx in the throat, down through the trachea and into the lungs through the bronchi. The bronchioles then transfer oxygen to red blood cells for circulation.

Stress and strong emotions can present with respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath and rapid breathing, as the airway between the nose and the lungs constricts. For people without respiratory disease, this is generally not a problem as the body can manage the additional work to breathe comfortably, but psychological stressors can exacerbate breathing problems for people with pre-existing respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD; includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis).

Some studies show that an acute stress — such as the death of a loved one — can actually trigger asthma attacks. In addition, the rapid breathing — or hyperventilation — caused by stress can bring on a panic attack in someone prone to panic attacks.

Working with a psychologist to develop relaxation, breathing, and other cognitive behavioral strategies can help.

Cardiovascular

The heart and blood vessels comprise the two elements of the cardiovascular system that work together in providing nourishment and oxygen to the organs of the body. The activity of these two elements is also coordinated in the body’s response to stress. Acute stress — stress that is momentary or short-term such as meeting deadlines, being stuck in traffic or suddenly slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident — causes an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart muscle, with the stress hormones — adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol — acting as messengers for these effects. In addition, the blood vessels that direct blood to the large muscles and the heart dilate, thereby increasing the amount of blood pumped to these parts of the body and elevating blood pressure. This is also known as the fight or flight response. Once the acute stress episode has passed, the body returns to its normal state.

Chronic stress, or a constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels. The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body. This long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.

Repeated acute stress and persistent chronic stress may also contribute to inflammation in the circulatory system, particularly in the coronary arteries, and this is one pathway that is thought to tie stress to heart attack. It also appears that how a person responds to stress can affect cholesterol levels.

The risk for heart disease associated with stress appears to differ for women, depending on whether the woman is pre or postmenopausal. Levels of estrogen in premenopausal women appears to help blood vessels respond better during stress, thereby helping their bodies to better handle stress and protecting them against heart disease. Postmenopausal women lose this level of protection due to loss of estrogen, therefore putting them at greater risk for the effects of stress on heart disease.

Endocrine

When someone perceives a situation to be challenging, threatening or uncontrollable, the brain initiates a cascade of events involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the primary driver of the endocrine stress response. This ultimately results in an increase in the production of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids, which include cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone”.

The HPA axis

During times of stress, the hypothalamus, a collection of nuclei that connects the brain and the endocrine system, signals the pituitary gland to produce a hormone, which in turn signals the adrenal glands, located above the kidneys, to increase the production of cortisol. Cortisol increases the level of energy fuel available by mobilizing glucose and fatty acids from the liver. Cortisol is normally produced in varying levels throughout the day, typically increasing in concentration upon awakening and slowly declining throughout the day, providing a daily cycle of energy. During a stressful event, an increase in cortisol can provide the energy required to deal with prolonged or extreme challenge.

Stress and health

Glucocorticoids, including cortisol, are important for regulating the immune system and reducing inflammation. While this is valuable during stressful or threatening situations where injury might result in increased immune system activation, chronic stress can result in impaired communication between the immune system and the HPA axis. This impaired communication has been linked to the future development of numerous physical and mental health conditions, including chronic fatigue, metabolic disorders (e.g., diabetes, obesity), depression and immune disorders.

Gastrointestinal

The gut has hundreds of millions of neurons which can function fairly independently and are in constant communication with the brain- explaining the ability to feel “butterflies” in the stomach. Stress can affect this brain-gut communication, and may trigger pain, bloating and other gut discomfort to be felt more easily. The gut is also inhabited by millions of bacteria which can influence its health and the brain’s health which can impact the ability to think and affect emotions. Stress is associated with changes in gut bacteria which in turn can influence mood. Thus, the gut’s nerves and bacteria strongly influence the brain and vice versa.

Early life stress can change the development of the nervous system as well as how the body reacts to stress. These changes can increase the risk for later gut diseases or dysfunctioning.

Esophagus

When stressed, individuals may eat much more or much less than usual. More or different foods, or an increase in the use of alcohol or tobacco, can result in heartburn or acid reflux. Stress or exhaustion can also increase the severity of regularly occurring heartburn pain. A rare case of spasms in the esophagus can be set off by intense stress and can be easily mistaken for a heart attack. Stress also may make swallowing foods difficult or increase the amount of air that is swallowed, which increases burping, gassiness and bloating.

Stomach

Stress may make pain, bloating, nausea and other stomach discomfort felt more easily. Vomiting may occur if the stress is severe enough. Furthermore, stress may cause an unnecessary increase or decrease in appetite. Unhealthy diets may in turn deteriorate one’s mood.

Contrary to popular belief, stress does not increase acid production in the stomach, nor causes stomach ulcers. The latter are actually caused by a bacterial infection. When stressed, the ulcers may be more bothersome.

Bowel

Stress can also make pain, bloating or discomfort felt more easily in the bowels. It can affect how quickly food moves through the body which can cause either diarrhea or constipation. Furthermore, stress can induce muscle spasms in the bowel which can be painful.

Stress can affect digestion, and what nutrients the intestines absorb. Gas production related to nutrient absorption may increase. The intestines have a tight barrier to protect the body from (most) food related bacteria. Stress can make the intestinal barrier weaker and allow gut bacteria to enter the body. Although most of these bacteria are easily taken care of by the immune system and do not make us sick, the constant low need for inflammatory action can lead to chronic mild symptoms.

Stress especially affects people with chronic bowel disorders, such as inflammatory Bowel Disease or Irritable Bowel Syndrome. This may be due to the gut nerves being more sensitive, changes in gut microbiota, changes in how quickly food moves through the gut, and/or changes in gut immune responses.

Nervous system

The nervous system has several divisions: the central division involving the brain and spinal cord and the peripheral division consisting of the autonomic and somatic nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system has a direct role in physical response to stress and is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). When the body is stressed, the SNS contributes to what is known as the “fight or flight” response. The body shifts its energy resources toward fighting off a life threat, or fleeing from an enemy. The SNS signals the adrenal glands to release hormones called adrenalin (epinephrine) and cortisol (see Endocrine System). These hormones, together with direct actions of autonomic nerves, cause the heart to beat faster (see Cardiovascular System), respiration rate to increase (see Respiratory System), blood vessels in the arms and legs to dilate (see Musculoskeletal System), digestive process to change and glucose levels (sugar energy) in the bloodstream to increase to deal with the emergency (see Gastrointestinal System).

The SNS response is fairly sudden in order to prepare the body to respond to an emergency situation or acute stress, short term stressors. Once the crisis is over, the body usually returns to the pre-emergency, unstressed state. This recovery is facilitated by the PNS, which generally has opposing effects to the SNS. But PNS over-activity can also contribute to stress reactions, for example, by promoting bronchoconstriction (e.g., in asthma) or exaggerated vasodilation and compromised blood circulation. Both the SNS and the PNS have powerful interactions with the immune system, which can also modulate stress reactions. The central nervous system is particularly important in triggering stress-responses, as it regulates the autonomic nervous system and plays a central role in interpreting contexts as potentially threatening.

Chronic stress, experiencing stressors over a prolonged period of time, can result in a long-term drain on the body. As the autonomic nervous system continues to trigger physical reactions, it causes a wear-and-tear on the body. It’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems that become problematic.

Male reproductive system

The male reproductive system is influenced by the nervous system. The parasympathetic part of the nervous system causes relaxation whereas the sympathetic part causes arousal. In the male anatomy, the autonomic nervous system, also known as the fight or flight response, produces testosterone and activates the sympathetic nervous system which creates arousal. Stress causes the body to release the hormone cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal glands. Cortisol is important to blood pressure regulation and the normal functioning of several body systems including cardiovascular, circulatory and male reproduction. Excess amounts of cortisol can affect the normal biochemical functioning of the male reproductive system.

Sexual desire

Chronic stress, ongoing stress over an extended period of time, can affect testosterone production resulting in a decline in sex drive or libido, and can even cause erectile dysfunction or impotence.

Reproduction

Chronic stress can also negatively impact sperm production and maturation causing difficulties in couples who are trying to conceive. Researchers have found that men who experienced two or more stressful life events in the past year had a lower percentage of sperm motility (ability to swim) and a lower percentage of sperm of normal morphology (size and shape), compared with men who did not experience any stressful life events.

Diseases of the reproductive system

When stress affects the immune system, the body can become vulnerable to infection. In the male anatomy, infections to the testes, prostate gland and urethra, can affect normal male reproductive functioning.

Female reproductive system

Menstruation

Stress may affect menstruation among adolescent girls and women in several ways. For example, high levels of stress may be associated with absent or irregular menstrual cycles, more painful periods and changes in the length of cycles.

Women juggle personal, family, professional, financial and a broad range of other demands across their life span. Stress, distraction, fatigue, etc., may reduce sexual desire — especially when women are simultaneously caring for young children or other ill family members, coping with chronic medical problems, feeling depressed, experiencing relationship difficulties or abuse, dealing with work problems, etc.

Pregnancy

Stress can have significant impact on a woman’s reproductive plans. Stress can negatively impact a woman’s ability to conceive, the health of her pregnancy, and her postpartum adjustment. Depression is the leading complication of pregnancy and postpartum adjustment. Excess stress increases the likelihood of developing depression and anxiety during this time. Maternal stress can negatively impact fetal and ongoing childhood development and disrupt bonding with the baby in the weeks and months following delivery.

Premenstrual syndrome

Stress may make premenstrual symptoms worse or more difficult to cope with and premenses symptoms may be stressful for many women. These symptoms include cramping, fluid retention and bloating, negative mood (feeling irritable and “blue”) and mood swings.

Menopause

As menopause approaches, hormone levels fluctuate rapidly. These changes are associated with anxiety, mood swings and feelings of distress. Thus menopause can be a stressor in and of itself. Some of the physical changes associated with menopause, especially hot flashes, can be difficult to cope with. Furthermore, emotional distress may cause the physical symptoms to be worse. For example, women who are more anxious may experience an increased number of hot flashes and/or more severe or intense hot flashes.

When stress is high, there is increased chance of exacerbation of symptoms of reproductive disease states, such as: Herpes Simplex Virus or Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. The diagnosis and treatment of reproductive cancers can cause significant stress, which warrants additional attention and support.

Stress management

These recent discoveries about the effects of stress on health shouldn’t leave you worrying. We now understand much more about effective strategies for reducing stress responses. Such beneficial strategies include:

  1. Maintaining a healthy social support network.
  2. Engaging in regular physical exercise.
  3. Getting an adequate amount of sleep each night.

These approaches have important benefits for physical and mental health, and form critical building blocks for a healthy lifestyle. If would like additional support or if you are experiencing extreme or chronic stress, a licensed psychologist can help you identify the challenges and stressors that affect your daily life and find ways to help you best cope for improving your overall physical and mental well-being.

Stress and Your Health

A Harvard Health article

How Stress Management Helps Fight Disease

Skeptics have long believed that meditation and other stress reduction techniques are nice but ineffectual practices that do little for you. Nothing could be further from the truth—and now we have the science to prove it.

The effects of chronic stress on the body

There is little doubt that chronic stress has harmful effects on the body, and it acts in multiple ways. To begin with, the ripple effects of stress undermine healthy behavior. If you’ve ever powered your way through a taxing day on a fistful of candy bars and cigarettes, you understand the issue firsthand. But over and above such impacts on behavior, stress affects the body directly.

Abundant evidence shows that chronic stress chips away at physical health, pushing blood pressure to dizzying heights and harming the heart. It plays a role in diabetes, asthma, and gastrointestinal disorders. High levels of stress may even speed up the aging process.

By contrast, people exhibiting less stress tend to be in better health, and now we’re starting to understand why. Stress management can benefit the entire body, right down to your genes.

Health problems linked to stress

Stress may contribute to or exacerbate health problems from A to Z (or at least to U). Among them:

  • allergic skin reactions
  • high blood pressure
  • anxiety
  • arthritis
  • constipation
  • cough
  • depression
  • diabetes
  • dizziness
  • gum disease
  • headaches
  • heart problems, such as angina (chest pains), arrhythmias, heart attack, and palpitations (pounding heart)
  • heartburn
  • high blood pressure
  • infectious diseases, such as colds or herpes
  • insomnia and resulting fatigue
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes
  • “morning sickness,” the nausea and vomiting of pregnancy
  • nervousness
  • pain of any sort, including backaches, headaches, abdominal pain, muscle pain, joint aches, postoperative pain, and chronic pain caused by many conditions
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • postoperative swelling
  • premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • side effects of AIDS
  • side effects of cancer and cancer treatments
  • slow wound healing
  • ulcers

To the extent that stress worsens the above ailments, the relaxation response (a state of profound rest) and other stress management methods can be healing.

Cardiovascular disease

Cardiovascular disease encompasses a range of ailments that affect the heart or blood vessels. Chronic stress contributes to three of the most common ailments: atherosclerosis (the accumulation of fatty deposits on artery walls), heart attacks, and high blood pressure. Stress can also trigger atrial fibrillation, palpitations, premature ventricular contractions, and other arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms). An intense physical or emotional experience—such as surgery or the death of a loved one—can cause an uncommon condition known as stress cardiomyopathy.

Many psychological factors—including depression, anxiety, anger and hostility, and loneliness— contribute to stress. So do social factors, such as challenges related to work, family, and finances. Acting alone, each of these factors heightens the chances of developing heart trouble. When combined, their power increases exponentially.

Can stress management help?

Yes. The strongest evidence for the benefits of stress management springs from heart disease studies. One Medicare-sponsored study published in the American Heart Journal examined two nationally recognized programs—the Cardiac Wellness Program of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine and the Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease. Both programs aim to improve heart health through lifestyle modifications, including stress management, exercise, and nutrition counseling.

At the end of the three-year study, participants (who all had heart disease at the outset) had lost weight, reduced their blood pressure levels, improved cholesterol levels, and reported greater psychological well-being. Both programs also appeared to improve cardiac function. What’s more, participants in the Benson-Henry program also had lower death rates and were less likely to be hospitalized for heart problems, compared with controls.

Even after you’ve had a heart attack or heart surgery, stress management can help by bolstering the benefits of cardiac rehabilitation—a supervised program to help people recover after such an event.

High blood pressure (hypertension)

Stress management seems to be especially effective for lowering high blood pressure. Blood pressure fluctuates throughout the day, spiking when you exercise or get upset and dipping when you rest quietly or sleep.

The release of stress hormones causes your heart to beat faster and your blood pressure to rise. Often, this increase is temporary, and your heartbeat slows and your blood pressure drops once a threat has passed. But if the stress response is triggered repeatedly, blood pressure may remain consistently high.

High blood pressure forces the heart to pump harder to circulate blood, which eventually causes heart muscle to thicken. But in the heart, a bigger muscle doesn’t necessarily translate into added strength. Often the blood supply to the heart muscle doesn’t increase to the same degree, and, over time, the heart weakens, becoming less effective as a pump—a condition known as heart failure.

High blood pressure also damages artery walls in a way that promotes atherosclerosis. In fact, the higher your blood pressure, the greater your risk for a heart attack, heart failure, stroke, and even kidney disease.

Yes. Eliciting the relaxation response helps lower blood pressure. A variety of techniques are effective. For example, according to a 2013 scientific statement from the American Heart Association, a number of studies show that meditation can modestly lower blood pressure.

Practicing the relaxation response may even lessen the amount of medication you need to take to control your blood pressure, according to one randomized, controlled trial of older adults on an eight- week program of relaxation response plus other stress management techniques.

Gastrointestinal disorders

The gastrointestinal system is very sensitive to emotions—and anger, anxiety, sadness, and elation can all trigger symptoms in the gut. That’s not surprising when you consider the close connection and similarities between the nerves in the brain and the gut. The gut is controlled by the enteric nervous system, a complex system of about 100 million nerves that oversees every aspect of digestion and is strongly influenced both by the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and by the gut microbiome—an extensive ecosystem of microbes that inhabit your gastrointestinal tract.

Over a decade ago, an influential paper published in the journal Gut reported that a combination of psychological and physical factors can trigger gastrointestinal pain and other bowel symptoms. Severe life stress, the report also noted, often precedes the onset of functional bowel disorders for people being treated in gastrointestinal clinics. Laboratory experiments show the digestive system responds to emotional arousal and mental stress. Stomach acid secretion can increase, which may lead to heartburn and inflammation of the esophagus. Stress may play a role in the development of ulcers, too. Stress can also cause abnormal contractions in the small intestine and colon and influence the pace at which food travels through the gastrointestinal tract, exacerbating irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Quite possibly, yes, if you suffer from IBS. Along with IBS medications, dietary changes, exercise, and probiotics, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases recommends trying stress management strategies, such as meditation and mindfulness, hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other forms of psychotherapy.

Diabetes

Nearly 26 million Americans are estimated to have diabetes. Some know it; some don’t. The vast majority—90% to 95%—have type 2 diabetes, which is often triggered by obesity, poor diet, and inactivity. Another 79 million Americans are skating close to that edge with higher-than-normal blood glucose (sugar) levels, a condition called prediabetes.

While chronic stress isn’t thought to cause diabetes, it can make blood sugar harder to control, a problem that compounds if you’re using unhealthy behaviors to relieve pressure. Keeping blood sugar levels within certain parameters set by your doctor can help you prevent, or slow down, the many complications that stem from diabetes. Heart disease (the No. 1 cause of death in people with diabetes), nephropathy (kidney damage or disease), and psychosocial distress (depression, negative outlook, and similar issues) are among them.

Possibly. The best evidence so far is for the effects of yoga on type 2 diabetes. A 2016 review in the Journal of Diabetes Research that pooled findings from 25 different trials suggests that yoga may help improve blood sugar control, lipid levels (such as cholesterol and tri- glyceride levels), and body composition, including a reduction in fat leading to weight loss.

Cancer

Cancer is not a single disease, but many diseases. What they have in common is the uncontrolled spread of abnormal cells. Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that stress by itself causes cancer. But whether long-term stress may change a tumor’s microenvironment and play a role by tampering with immune defenses is a question that bears closer scrutiny.

One theory about how cancer develops suggests that cancerous changes in cells occur frequently for a variety of reasons, but the immune system recognizes the cells as aberrant and destroys them. Only when the immune system becomes ineffective are the cancer cells able to multiply. Since chronic stress can hamper certain types of immune response, this might affect the body’s ability to head off the uncontrolled proliferation of cancerous cells.

It’s too early to say, but there are promising hints. In the meantime, stress management could help people deal with some of the emotional and physical effects of cancer. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, practicing mindfulness meditation can help relieve anxiety and stress in people with cancer, as well as ease fatigue and overall mood and sleep disturbances.

Asthma

Stress clearly plays a role in many cases of asthma. Normally, as you breathe in, air passes through the bronchioles (small airways inside the lungs) to air sacs called alveoli, where oxygen from the incoming air is passed into the bloodstream. Meanwhile, blood returning to the lungs gives up carbon dioxide, which collects in the alveoli and is drawn back through the bronchioles to be expelled as you breathe out.

The autonomic nervous system, which constricts and dilates the bronchioles, is highly sensitive to stress. Strong arousal—whether from a perceived threat, upsetting news, or an emotional confrontation—can provoke the bronchioles to constrict, which makes it more difficult to move air in and out. As a result, stress and intense emotions, such as fear or anger, can trigger asthma attacks (bouts of breathlessness and wheezing) in some people who have asthma. Of course, physical stressors, such as cold weather and exercise, can do the same.

The extent of stress’s role in the development of asthma is still being debated. Intense family stress early in life has been proposed as one of several key risk factors. However, genetic predisposition, exposure to certain allergens, viral infections, and raised levels of certain allergy markers in the blood are also considered important.

Possibly. In 2016, an article published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews summarized findings from 15 randomized trials of yoga in people with asthma. The authors found some evidence that yoga may offer small improvements in quality of life and symptoms. But yoga’s effects on lung function and medication use remain uncertain.

Adapted with permission from Stress Management: Enhance your well-being by reducing stress and building resilience, a special health report published by Harvard Health Publications.

Do stress-related disorders raise the risk of infections?

Having a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or another stress-related condition may increase the risk of acquiring certain infections, according to a new study.

Share on PinterestPeople with a stress-related condition may be predisposed to infections.

Despite what some 17th century philosophers taught us, our minds and bodies are not separate entities.

In fact, modern scientific research is drawing more and more attention to the intimate links between our mental health and well-being and a variety of physical conditions.

One such example is the link between stress-related disorders and poor physical health. Recent studies have found associations between PTSD and various gastrointestinal, neurological, and cardiorespiratory conditions.

For instance, one study found that cardiac events were 27% more likely to occur in people with PTSD, and that people with PTSD were 46% more likely to develop an autoimmune condition.

New research strengthens this link between stress-related disorders and physical ailments, as scientists find a connection between the former and a raised risk of infections.

Huan Song — a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Public Health Sciences at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík — is the first and corresponding author of the study. The team’s results now appear in the BMJ.

Studying infections and stress disorders

Song and colleagues examined infection rates in a cohort of 144,919 people with diagnosis of PTSD, “acute stress reaction, adjustment disorder, and other stress reactions” between 1987 and 2013.

The researchers compared this cohort with 184,612 siblings of people living with a diagnosis of a stress-related disorder and with 1,449,190 matched individuals without such a condition.

The infections the researchers studied included “sepsis, endocarditis, and meningitis or other central nervous system infections.” They examined the Swedish National Patient Register and the Cause of Death Register for infection-related hospital visits and number of deaths.

On average, participants received their diagnosis of a stress-related disorder at the age of 37, and the researchers followed the participants for a median of 8 years.

The team controlled for family history of major infections, as well as for other physical or psychiatric comorbidities.

Stress and infection: What explains the link?

The analysis revealed that in “the Swedish population, stress-related disorders were associated with a subsequent risk of life threatening infections, after controlling for familial background and physical or psychiatric comorbidities.”

Specifically, the results showed a 63% higher risk of meningitis among those with stress-related disorders, and a 57% higher risk of endocarditis, compared with siblings who did not have any stress-related conditions.

Also, substance use disorders further increased this risk. By contrast, using selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors in the first year of having a diagnosis of a stress-related disorder lowered this risk.

As this was an observational study, the research cannot establish causality. In a linked editorial, however, Prof. Jonathan Bisson — from Cardiff University in the United Kingdom — explores some possible mechanisms that could explain the findings.

” disturbed hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, with reduced cortisol levels or receptor resistance” is one such pathway, he says. This can, in turn, trigger “excessive inflammation.”

Also, Song and colleagues suggest in their paper that their findings are consistent with this theory, and that stress-related disorders may result in an excessive production of inflammatory cytokines.

However, both the study authors and Prof. Bisson caution that more research is necessary.

” conclusions about the associations between stress-related disorders and physical health would be premature,” Prof. Bisson says, “but mounting evidence suggests that carefully designed studies to identify common or related mechanistic pathways could be fruitful in the future.”

“PTSD, with its high level of physical comorbidity, is a major public health concern; a holistic biopsychosocial approach to research and management of PTSD, co-produced with patients and families, is likely the best way to help people with this common condition,” he concludes.

The Long-Term Consequences of Negative Stress

Having finished our discussion of the various factors that cause people to experience stress in positive, negative or neutral forms, we are now in a position to talk about the potential problems that can develop when people are faced with repetitive distress. Chronic and persistent negative stress (distress) can lead to many adverse health problems, including physical illness, and mental, emotional and social problems.

The Physical Impact of Stress:

The immune system is a complex group of cells and organs that defend the body against disease and infection. A healthy immune system remains in homeostasis (balance), much like the speeding up and slowing down relationship between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems that we described previously in the section of this document concerned with the fight-or-flight response. Because of this similarity, the immune system has sometimes been called our “liquid nervous system.”

Stress causes these cells and organs that compose the nervous system to release hormones that trigger the production of white blood cells (which fight infection) and other disease-fighting elements. This stress-triggered hormone release is essential for priming the immune system to respond quickly to injuries and acute (short-term) illnesses. However, this activity is not beneficial to your health if it continues for more than a short while. Chronic stimulation of the immune system causes the system to become suppressed overall, and thus become less effective at warding off diseases and infections.

Researchers have learned that cells in the immune system release chemicals called cytokines that act as messengers. These messengers allow cells to “talk” to one another and instruct each other to develop additional cells to fight infection. Hormone release during chronic stress may inhibit the production of cytokines, thus thwarting the body’s ability to effectively coordinate the fight against infection. Because of this reduction in cytokines, the immune system’s proliferative response (its ability to successfully fight off disease) decreases by 15% or more during chronically stressful situations. It is not surprising then, that individuals who are highly stressed are more likely to succumb to colds, infections, and herpes breakouts (a viral infection that causes infected people to develop sores on their mouths or genitals).

The breakdown of communication between the various aspects of the immune system that occurs during times of chronic stress may also be responsible for triggering flare-ups (or new cases) of various autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis (MS) and other similar conditions. An autoimmune disease is one where the immune system gets confused, and starts attacking the body’s own healthy cells instead of what it should be doing, which is attacking foreign disease-causing bodies.

After stressors (such as injury or illness) have been dealt with, the immune system normally secretes additional hormones that trigger a decrease in the production of white blood cells, enabling the system to rest and rejuvenate itself. This normal decrease and rejuvenation response becomes delayed during times of chronic stress.

Stress and Illnesses

Because of their effects on the immune system, as described above, stress hormones impact the development and severity of many different diseases and bodily systems. In some instances, stress causes existing conditions to worsen. In other cases, stress seems to be a major factor creating vulnerability to developing new conditions in the first place. In the sections below, we explore the contributions of chronic stress to various common medical problems.

Digestive system

Many people experience a stomachache or diarrhea when they are stressed. The stress hormones that slow the release of stomach acid and the emptying of the stomach (in preparation for the flight or fight response) also stimulate the colon so as to quickly empty the digestive system. Sometimes this emptying process results in pain or diarrhea. These hormones can also cause excess belching, farting and other gas problems, and enhance a person’s vulnerability to developing Crohn’s disease, which is an ongoing inflammation of the membrane lining the colon (the large intestine or bowel). For more information on Crohn’s Disease, please visit our Crohn’s Disease Topic Center

Chronic stress-hormone induced physical changes can also increase people’s appetite, causing them to gain weight and potentially, to become obese. Obesity puts individuals at risk for developing other health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and arthritis. Chronic stress may also alternatively cause people to lose their appetite and to lose too much weight.

Cardiovascular system

Chronic activation of stress hormones can raise your heart rate, cause chest pain and/or heart palpitations (sensations that your heart is pounding or racing), and increase your blood pressure and blood lipid (fat) levels. Sustained high levels of cholesterol and other fatty substances in the blood can lead to atherosclerosis, a disease in which fatty plaques build up on blood vessel walls, restrict blood flow to the heart and sometimes lead to a heart attack.

Cortisol levels also appear to play a role in the accumulation of abdominal fat, which gives some people an “apple” shape. People with apple body shapes have a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes than do people with “pear” body shapes, where weight is more concentrated in the hips. Some very new research suggests that people with apple-shaped bodies are also at increased risk for developing dementia of the Alzheimer’s type in later life than are people with pear-shaped bodies. For more information on dementia, please see our Alzheimer’s Disease and other Cognitive Disorders.

The relationship between stress and heart health can also be a bit more indirect. People who respond to stress with anger or hostility have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Similarly, unhealthy stress coping strategies such as smoking, drinking, or overeating can also damage the heart and surrounding blood vessels. For more information on heart disease, please see our Heart Disease topic center.

Musculoskeletal System

Stress often causes muscles to contract or tighten. Over time, sustained stress can cause aches and pains to occur due to muscle tension. Many people experience muscle spasms in their neck and shoulders as well as their lower back. Stress can also cause (or exacerbate) muscular twitches and uncontrolled movement (tics); headaches due to muscle tension; migraines (headaches due to changes in nerves and blood vessels that can cause severe pain, nausea, and sensitivity to light and sound); and tempromandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ) which involves pain in the jaw at the joint site where the lower jaw joins the skull.

Reproductive System

The hormones accompanying stress can cause reproductive problems for both women and men. Women may experience menstrual disorders (such as pain or heavy bleeding), or recurrent vaginal infections. Men who are stressed may develop erectile dysfunction or problems with premature ejaculation during intercourse. Both genders may experience a decrease in sexual desire and/or problems with infertility as a result of stress.

Other Physical Problems

Stress worsens many skin conditions – such as psoriasis (an autoimmune condition characterized by raised, red patches on various parts of the body which may be covered with a silvery white buildup of dead skin cells), eczema (characterized by dry, red, extremely itchy patches on the body), hives (raised, often itchy, red welts occurring on the surface of the skin), and acne. Stress can also contribute to hair loss and some forms of balding; a dry mouth and mouth ulcers; asthma attacks; and an increased risk for having strokes (due to decreased heart health).

Scientists are also exploring the role of stress in creating vulnerability to cancer. The question of whether there is a link between stress and cancer has puzzled and intrigued researchers and patients for many years. Currently, the available research (based on many studies) suggests no consistent relationship exists between stress and vulnerability to developing cancer. There is also no good evidence to suggest that people who repress, suppress, or deny their emotions are more vulnerable to developing cancer, or that there is a “cancer personality type.”

This is not to say that there is no relationship between stress and cancer, however. Available evidence does suggest that people’s stress levels can influence the course (or spread) of their cancer. For example, one study found that people diagnosed with malignant melanoma (the most serious form of skin cancer) who were in a stress-management group developed better coping skills, improved their negative moods, and experienced fewer relapses of melanoma compared to control patients who did not receive this type of stress management training.

Even though stress does not appear at this time to be a direct cause of cancer, it does seem to impact the development of cancer indirectly, in a similar manner to how stress and cardiovascular disease are related. People who are stressed often use unhealthy coping methods (such as smoking and drinking excessively) to alleviate their discomfort. These unhealthy behaviors clearly increase people’s risk of developing cancer.

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