What Stress Can Do To Your Body

Ever stop and measure the stress in your life? Did you know that your reactions to stress can make you seriously sick and shorten your life? Take a self-assessment questionnaire here to help figure out your stress level.

Too Much Stress… A Massive Power of Self Destruction

“If you ask what is the single most important key to longevity, I would have to say it is avoiding worry, stress and tension. And if you didn’t ask me, I’d still have to say it.”

− The late comedian George Burns, who lived to 100

When I was 13, my paternal grandmother died from a massive stroke. I remember asking my father what had caused her stroke. He explained that the oil burner in my grandmother’s house had started smoking and she became emotionally upset about it. Within a few minutes she became confused, and then collapsed to the floor.

I recalled the incident later when I studied the psychological connection to physical disease. I realized that my grandmother’s intense reaction had lit a lethal fuse.

This event in my youth remained in the back of my mind when, as a practicing physician, I repeatedly asked patients about the stress in their lives. The answers I heard over the years cemented my understanding of just how powerful stress and emotions were as contributing factors to not only heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke, but to the erosion of health in general.

Stress is a weapon of mass destruction. You have to prevent it from destroying you!

Most people, including doctors, don’t really appreciate the power of stress and what it can do to your body. I’ve seen the fallout too many times myself to have any doubts about its lethality. Most people trivialize stress, brush it off or underestimate its potency. “I’m just a little stressed,” they’ll say, as if chronic stress equates to caffeinated edginess. It doesn’t. It is responsible, in fact, for 75 to 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians.

The following information will tell you why this is so, and what you can do about the stress in your life.

What is Stress?

Stress is a measure of your mental and physical resistance to circumstances beyond your control. Stressors are threats, demands, or changes to which you attach special, significant importance, and with which you may struggle or feel uncertainty.

Common stressors include the loss of a vital connection through death or the emotional longing for someone who is unavailable, especially a spouse or family members; financial distress; being overworked at your job, at home, or in your studies; caretaking; workplace and personal relationship struggles; divorce; and other fears of loss and inability to meet external demands.

How Acute Stress and Chronic Stress Affect You

When you encounter a stressful situation, stress hormones flood your bloodstream so that you can respond quickly and with strength. Watching your child blindly run across a busy street, for example, might induce a hormonal response that enables you to catch your youngster before any harm is done. Specifically, your pituitary gland discharges ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) into the bloodstream. ACTH, in turn, catalyzes the release of two catecholamine hormones, epinephrine (adrenalin) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), from your sympathetic nerves into the bloodstream. Catecholamines, produced by the adrenal glands, serve as neurotransmitters that signal the body to prepare for emergency action.

Physiological changes produced include increased heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and muscle tension that serve to supply adequate blood to your brain and musculoskeletal system. Higher levels of free fatty acids and blood sugar are released to provide immediate energy to survive the perceived emergency. This is what we call the well-known “fight or flight response.”

It is the general absence of an emergency or threat taken in response to some stressor that may wreak havoc with your health. In most emotionally stressful social situations, for example those that result from ongoing work, financial worry, or personal relationships, you don’t actually flee or fight. Instead, you may “suck it up,” and end up storing the stress internally. Additionally, your reaction to the stressor may include feelings of helplessness or futility, which might cause your stress hormones to continue to surge.

Long-term chronic stress can wreck your nervous system through a cyclic adrenaline rush. It can cause oxidative damage to tissues in the body that leads to inflammation. It can stoke symptoms such as headache, achy neck, ulcer, allergies, and diminished sexual desire. Eventually, your body will adapt to a continued state of vigilance by producing an excess amount of the stress hormone cortisol. Too much stress, over time, can exhaust you (you “burn out”), your adrenal glands where cortisol is produced, and accelerate the aging process, harm your immune system, and even shrink vital brain tissue resulting in memory loss and problems with concentration.

This scenario is the leading but often overlooked cause of insomnia and a major contributor to mental ills (depression, obsessive compulsive and anxiety disorders), as well as physical diseases ranging from the common cold, recurrent herpes and obesity, to AIDS and cancer. It is hard to think of any disease in which stress cannot play a precipitating or aggravating role.

What develops is a vicious cycle. Add in sedentary living, sleep deprivation, abuse of stimulants, hostility, smoking, social isolation, and an unhealthy diet, and things really do go downhill.

Can Stress Kill You?

Absolutely…Acute stress is the leading cause of sudden death, especially in young healthy people with no evidence of coronary disease. But it can fell people at any age. My grandmother is an example.

Chronic stress causes heart disease. It is a clandestine cause − not fat or cholesterol − of heart attacks and arterial disease. It contributes to high blood pressure (hypertension), a risk factor for cardiovascular problems such as heart failure and sudden cardiac death and heart enlargement.

Long-term depression significantly increases the risk of heart disease. Among other effects, it actually triples the disease producing effect of smoking.

In cardiology, stress is a grim reaper that abruptly ends life by rupturing unstable plaque in a vital vessel or by triggering a lethal disturbance in heart rhythm.

When you get fired up emotionally, you’re putting a torch to your arteries. Medical research has repeatedly documented the danger of anger, chronic stress, and the negative emotional states. Yet these risk factors are rarely addressed by doctors.

How We React to Stress

Stress comes and goes in all our lives. Your ability to adapt well to stressors is key for a good quality of life and health preservation. If you don’t adapt, stress can surely kill. I have no doubt whatsoever.

Upon encountering stressors you have two choices. You can adapt and “go with the flow” by doing something to create change or otherwise ameliorate the situation. Or, you can “mal-adapt” by withdrawing or pushing beyond normal expectations in an effort to make the stress disappear. Sometimes “easier said than done,” adapting may require repeated conscious effort.

Opting for unhealthy coping strategies, such as abusing drugs or alcohol, overeating, or overworking, can pile on yet more stress. Even the medication that doctors prescribe for stress can add to the pile. Most physicians, in fact, have little training in recognizing stress or treating it, other than to prescribe a tranquilizer, anti-depressant, sleeping pill – or perhaps all three. Such band-aid approaches can cause additional stress because of dependency and side effects that are then treated with even more drugs that create still more side effects. Taken habitually, they all add a layer of toxic pharmaceutical stress that a strained body has to deal with.

Less Stress Promotes Longevity

Can You Slow Down the Aging Process?

Every time a particular stressor challenges you, you are given the opportunity to choose to adapt healthfully.

If you want to live longer, you better learn to defuse your stress. Scientific evidence has surfaced that stress reduction bolsters longevity by directly impacting your DNA in a favorable way. That revelation comes from the many years of work by three American geneticists who won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. Their research (Epal, et. al) involves the study of telomeres, the tail portion of chromosomes that controls the lifespan of cells and their division. These protective structures look something like the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces but act like guardians and timers of cellular aging. As the aging process progresses, telomeres shorten. At some point this shrinkage contributes to cellular senescence and has been associated with many degenerative and age-related conditions.

The research suggests strongly that reduction of stress may help contribute to enhanced longevity and slowing down the telomere attrition. Among the most fascinating studies, Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., one of the Nobel Prize winners from the University of California-San Francisco, organized a study of women caring for children seriously compromised by chronic illnesses and disabilities −  talk about incredible stress! − and compared them to mothers of healthy children. When the scientists scrutinized the telomeres by examining blood samples, they found significantly shorter lengths in the mothers most traumatized by their situations.

The researchers wanted to investigate the hypothesis that stress impacts health by affecting the rate of cellular aging. Their study provided evidence that long-term exposure to stress decreases telomerase, the enzyme that provides protection for the telomeres. A shortage of the enzyme results in telomere shortening, leading to accelerated aging through premature cell death.

The stress, they said, not only lowered telomerase activity and shortened telomeres but also generated higher oxidative stress. All of these factors are “known determinants of cell senescence and longevity. Women with the highest levels of perceived stress have telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of at least one decade of additional aging compared to low stress women. These findings have implications for understanding how, at the cellular level, stress may promote earlier onset of age-related diseases.”

We all know people who are chronically stressed. They tend to look haggard. Now, thanks to the telomere researchers, we are able to understand more of the exact mechanisms of how stress works − and kills − under the skin.

The attention and acclaim from this line of research hopefully will revive medical interest in dealing with stress in safe, effective, and uplifting ways, beyond just the business-as-usual pharmaceutical approach, which has so many side effects.

Years ago, before the American Heart Association finally identified “stress” as an independent factor for heart disease, I used to supervise workshops to help local cardiac patients learn to identify their stressors, as well as discover interventions to alleviate the stress. Over the thirty or so years since, medical science has accumulated indisputable evidence that stress reduction lowers blood pressure, relieves physiological strain on the heart, and may even save your life. Now we are learning the impact of stress down at the DNA level.

What to Do When You’re Stressed

We all need to find our own personal antidote to stress and not take it lightly. For me, it’s walking on a daily basis with my pet Chow Kuma and doing yoga.  Whenever possible, I have gotten away from my many professional and business activities to pursue my favorite pastime: catch-and-release bone fishing. I basically disappear for a few weeks with wife Jan in a warm and sunny vacation spot, and spend time wading and fishing offshore. It’s a moving meditation for me.

What’s your stress-busting method? There’s a lot to choose from. Meditation. Yoga. A hobby. Dancing. Playing music. Playing or watching sports. Playing with the kids or grandkids. Crossword puzzles. Knitting. A hobby. They are all out there.

And be sure you laugh a lot – a great form of stress release!

And reconnect yourself to the Earth through Earthing (grounding).  This simple practice allows the Earth’s natural and gentle electric energy to flow into your body where it calms the nervous system, promotes sleep and better blood flow, reduces inflammation and pain, and increases your energy.  It’s as easy to do as being regularly outside barefoot on grass, dirt, stone, and sand.  But that may not be practical for many people, and certainly not in cold, winter weather. Conductive Earthing sheets, mats, and bands are commercially available to allow you to soak up healthy Earth vibes and improve your health. This is a major health breakthrough and I don’t know an easier way to improve your health and lower your stress.

Do I believe you can lengthen your life if you de-stress yourself? Absolutely. I’ve observed many times how it shortens life.

Whatever you do when you’re stressed, make it a regular fixture on your path through life.

References and Resources:

© 2014, 2016 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

24 Comments

  1. Linda Crabtree

    on February 27, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    Reply

    Stress is continual in my life. I have a genetic disability: I cannot walk at all or use my hands very well. My sister just died suddenly at age 59 from a massive heart attack. My father died the same way at age 57. My brother had a massive stroke at 59. I am stressed to the limit. I am 71 and have outlived them all. There is no relief. I cannot get away from my disability, I cannot deny the terrible loss I feel. I don’t know what this will do to my heart but I know my chronic pain is worse. Any suggestions? It’s -26 here with the wind chill. I can’t evenly fly south because I’m not able to use a public toilet. My caregiver husband may fold at any time.

  2. Mai Phillips

    on February 27, 2014 at 6:17 pm

    Reply

    Thank you for the above information. No doubt, most of us are familiar with parts of its content but fail, at times, to remember to practice the art of de-stressing! Please keep up the wonderful work you are doing.
    In 1995 I was to be subjected to either a bi-pass or some other procedure to relieve very, very bad angina pains. I couldn’t walk 10 – 15 ft without pain. I chose to ‘do it my way” and told my cardiologist that I was going away from the cold North to Florida for 3 months and was taking a book by Dr. Ornish (Reversing Heart Disease). I followed it to the letter. Within one month I was able to talk the full Clearwater Beach without so much as a tickle! and with NO medications! I never did have to have the operation.

  3. Don

    on February 27, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    Reply

    I am living proof that stress can and will put you in the hospital. My score was 378. Many of the stresses in my life could not be avoided. It does not change that it is still harmful. In a three month period, my wife became disabled and had 4 surgeries in three weeks. ICU for 13 days and hospital stay of 54 days. My brother died in his sleep on her 12th day in the hospital. My Father died the day after she returned home.
    This was about a year ago, I was admitted to the hospital a couple of weeks ago. I had an ekg at a routine doctor’s visit. I had inverted “T” waves and was sent to the ER. I then had an Angiogram and found that I had some blockages in three arteries. None were severe enough to do anything about.

  4. ALLY

    on March 7, 2014 at 11:20 pm

    Reply

    Wonder if standing or walking on a large piece (or several squares) of slate purchased from a tile company would do the trick?

  5. Richard Kurylski, PhD

    on March 29, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    Reply

    My comment is on the stress test rather than on the article. I wonder who has assigned “objective” numbers to the stressors mentioned because the conclusion is drawn on the basis of the sum of those numbers. Stress is very subjective and according to a definition, if it is our reaction to a given situation, I would have thought that it was impossible to assign any objective number to objectively the same stressor like the death of the spouse or any other stressors mentioned in the test. The same stressor has a very subjective number and even a different number for the same person concerned depending on the circumstances. So I don’t think the test is very reliable. Although I have an academic background I don’t believe in the old science at all. Life

  6. Dave Taylor

    on July 16, 2014 at 4:06 am

    Reply

    Linda, I was pained to read your post. I’ve had my share of stress: polio at 3, encephalitis at 4, gunshot between the eyes at 15, spinal meningitis at 61, 2 divorces that might have been worse than everything else :-). However, I’ve walked away from all this with nothing more than ringing in my ears, and some rather bad attitudes about certain women. But look at you! Really heavy-weight issues and stressors, while losing your family to these same issues, and having to “wait for your turn.” That really sucks! I’m a Christian and I’m gonna pray for you Linda–and I can assure you there is something much better after this world! Try to relax…the “good things” are ahead.

  7. Erin

    on October 11, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    Reply

    If you are referring to the grounding activity, your idea is not going to work. Connect with nature. Wear your boots, rain gear, heavy coat, whatever you need to feel comfortable in the outdoors. Go outside and just walk, just be. It’s calming, fun, and beautiful. But be careful, it’s addictive. 🙂

  8. rower

    on December 23, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    Reply

    I hope you feel better. I used to be very stressed and anxious, but i pulled through with god and effort, and so can you.

  9. Elizabeth

    on February 3, 2015 at 5:13 am

    Reply

    How dare you. Old Science is always right. The corruption of the hospital and government is obvious and displayed in you Sir. >:(

  10. Elizabeth

    on February 3, 2015 at 5:18 am

    Reply

    I have so much stress in my life. I know an animal in the wild that is being hunted for its scales in Asia that is known for dying instantly because of stress. Now when I stumbled upon that article on the news I murmured finally i could relate to someone who couldn’t tolerate stress like me. Don’t listen to the doctors these days. They are not there to help. I honestly don’t think this world is going to be a better place the way some therapists are only out for the money and never even admit that. They are lame. Many people around you cause stressors and even provoke you. They expect you to act a certain way and they threaten you to act a certain way to please them. This is from lots of everyday experience. Now sometimes things can be done bystress..

  11. Elizabeth

    on February 3, 2015 at 5:22 am

    Reply

    Theres so much to go on about. At times the pain is too much. My mom physically, emotionally, and mentally abused me since i was born until i moved out at 18 years old. My dad abused me too mentally and emotionally. the house is always under negativity ….so much stress. my sister isn’t even doing well in school she has depression and she knows why. dad is dying because of heart problems and exercising too much and binging. all mom does is judge me and sister as horrible little slutty girls when we are the most innocent around! D: my GOD JUST WHY???! There is absolutely nearly no positivity in the house. My heart is beating so fast i could die its burning too its twisting and all…sometimes people can’t do anything about it…believe when you sense

  12. Kathy

    on March 19, 2015 at 6:25 pm

    Reply

    To all of you suffering from stress. My best advice is to release your troubles in the hands of God. God wants us to enjoy the life he gave us and he knows all that is happening within our lives even if we don’t express it to him. I firmly believe once you release your troubles and anxieties to him and pray your stress will reside. Instead of dwelling on the pain in our lives think of the positive things we have. Most of us cannot control the circumstances we have been subjected to but we can control our thoughts and behavior from this day forward but we need God’s help. He can perform miracles if we believe. In the mean time we can help ourselves with exercise, a hobby, socializing with people to do fun things and keep our minds positive.

  13. Ron

    on May 1, 2015 at 7:16 am

    Reply

    I scored 728!? What the heck does this mean. And I did not exaggerate. It’s frightening. I don’t have the energy to do anything. Yet I have to because I have a 1 year old and 4 year old. I’m tired.

  14. Tom Hodgins

    on June 11, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    Reply

    I like how serious your making stress seem when you have a picture of a woman clearly not under stress and a man with steam coming out of his ears like a cartoon, you’re making jokes about something people are scared of, panic of, DIE of and they are coming here for help. I suggest you remove those pictures or change them.

  15. Sheila

    on October 30, 2015 at 10:55 pm

    Reply

    Really helpful… Thx.

  16. Bill Young

    on December 3, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    Reply

    I am a Holistic Nutritionist. That means I am not Orthodox in any particular therapy or treatment. As long as it does not involve prescription drugs. I have developed a multi-modal approach to stress relief that my clients love. I have been a follower of Dr Sinatra and Clint Uber for many years and have incorporated Earthing iinto my Stress Management protocol. It consists of a Reiki Session augmented with Earthing, Aromatherapy, Binaural Beats and Ionized Water. All of these therapies have the same goal, allow the person’s body to Rejuvenate, Repair and Fight Aging by activating and stimulating their Parasympathetic Nervous System, PSNS.All of these modalities are synergistic and result in a wonderful, stress relieving experience for my client.

  17. Mark

    on January 1, 2016 at 7:12 pm

    Reply

    Must agree to an extent: The listed stressors are subjective per individual, but are highly correlated within a group or sample size. The larger the sample size, assuming randomness, the more validity the assumptions generally are. However, correlation does not imply causation.

  18. Erin Karin

    on January 4, 2016 at 9:37 pm

    Reply

    Thanks Dr OSAUYI for your kindly everybody know Human (Alzheimer’s Disease) is a deadly disease I was once a (Alzheimer’s Disease) positive , am from USA, I herd that this disease have claim many lives. I was using drug ever since, just last week here I see this great spell caster Email on the testimony that he cure Human Alzheimer’s Disease Virus (ADV) I was so surprised when I read the testimony and I don believe there is cure to Human Virus (HPV) and I see another testimony about the same man, then I have to try I get the real true of this testimony and I call the number below it and the man answer me, but now I am Genital warts negative, I will not stop publishing his name on the net because of the good work he is doing. I will drop his contact

  19. Abby

    on March 16, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    Reply

    My life has always been stressful, but lately (in the past year) my body has begun to deteriorate. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, back pain, exhaustion, you name it. It’s overwhelming and every doctor comes back with the same answer…”I don’t know “. I grew up around alcoholism and abuse. Most of my “love” relationships were unhealthy, borderline emotional abuse. This I didn’t realize until recently when I was in a relationship that involved domestic violence. The guilt and the shame overwhelm me. My health has taken a nose dive, and I lost my job indirectly due to my physical ailments. I just want to heal, but nothing works for me. I’m scared and lost. I need help.

    1. HeartMD Institute

      on May 10, 2016 at 12:42 pm

      Reply

      Hi Abby, We’re sorry to hear about your situation. We recommend talking a to a good psychotherapist, who’s familiar with how negative, abusive childhood and adult experiences can impact health and well being, and help you heal. Someone you can connect with. Healing is particular to the individual, know that you can heal. It’s possible that your physical ailments are due to something else, but addressing emotionality of illness is important too.
      You may find the following articles at HMDI helpful:
      https://heartmdinstitute.com/stress-relief/understanding-post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd-and-its-impact-on-our-veterans/
      and
      https://heartmdinstitute.com/heart-health/heartbreak-and-heart-disease-2/
      Best of luck!

  20. paul

    on March 24, 2016 at 5:01 am

    Reply

    Paul Gregg

    I’m Paul Gregg, when I eventually found the testimony of this spell caster Dr.sunny, how he helped many people to get their lovers and broken home, I contacted him via his email address drsunnydsolution1@gmail.com because I was completely desperate to get my wife back. A life without my wife was a real mess for me and my children. I wanted a dramatic change and I thought magic can be the solution. After discussing the resolution with Dr. sunny, he gave me the hope that he will restore my marriage. I felt that he was actually going to make my wife to return home and he did! It’s amazing what this great spell caster has done for me, is his help invaluable! I do not know what I would have done without Dr.sunny, he does his job so well he is

  21. Vitor Fernandes

    on May 20, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    Reply

    Hello, i want to ask if a person who had sufferrd from chronoc stress 10 years and then change his way of live can repair the damage or stressed years.. And be healthy or nothing to do?

    1. BankruptSingleSpecialNeedsMom

      on July 29, 2016 at 7:08 pm

      Reply

      What if you can’t ever get away from your stress if you never get a break ever not even to sleep!

  22. Jill

    on September 18, 2016 at 10:58 am

    Reply

    Elizabeth ,Abby, and bankruptsinglespecoalneedsmom I just want to say I will pray for y’all. I’m sorry you are under so much overwhelming stress.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recommended Reads