Need another thing to get stressed out about? Your stress itself could be making you sick.
"Stress doesn't only make us feel awful emotionally," says Jay Winner MD, author of Take the Stress Out of Your Life and director of the Stress Management Program for Sansum Clinic in Santa Barbara, Calif. "It can also exacerbate just about any health condition you can think of."
Studies have found many health problems related to stress. Stress seems to worsen or increase the risk of conditions like obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and asthma.
When she needs relief from the grind of delivering major proposals, Dana Marlowe, 33, of Washington, D.C., makes some noise. "I cruise right into my toddler’s playroom, and I just jam out with his toys -- the xylophone, the baby piano. I almost have 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' down," says Marlowe, a technology accessibility consultant.
This kind of casual music-making can short-circuit the stress response, research shows, and keep it from becoming chronic. Stress starts in the brain and then...
Before you get too stressed out about being stressed out, there is some good news. Following some simple stress relief tips could both lower your stress and lower your health risks.
10 Health Problems Related to Stress
What are some of the most significant health problems related to stress? Here's a sampling.
Heart disease. Researchers have long suspected that the stressed-out, type A personality has a higher risk of high blood pressure and heart problems. We don't know why, exactly. Stress might have a direct effect on the heart and blood vessels. 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 as much as they can.
Asthma. Many studies have shown that stress can worsen asthma. Some evidence suggests that a parent's chronic stress might even increase the risk of developing asthma in their children. One study looked at how parental stress affected the asthma rates of young children who were also exposed to air pollution or whose mothers smoked during pregnancy. The kids with stressed out parents had a substantially higher risk of developing asthma.
Obesity. Excess fat in the belly seems to pose greater health risks than fat on the legs or hips -- and unfortunately, that's just where people with high stress seem to store it. "Stress causes higher levels of the hormone cortisol," says Winner, "and that seems to increase the amount of fat that's deposited in the abdomen."
Diabetes. Stress can worsen diabetes in two ways. First, it increases the likelihood of bad behaviors, such as unhealthy eating and excessive drinking. Second, stress seems to raise the glucose levels of people with type 2 diabetes directly.
Headaches. Stress is considered one of the most common triggers for headaches -- not just tension headaches, but migraines as well.
Depression and anxiety. It's probably no surprise that chronic stress is connected with higher rates of depression and anxiety. One survey of recent studies found that people who had stress related to their jobs -- like demanding work with few rewards -- had an 80% higher risk of developing depression within a few years than people with lower stress.
Gastrointestinal problems. Here's one thing that stress doesn't do -- it doesn't cause ulcers. However, it can make them worse. Stress is also a common factor in many other GI conditions, such as chronic heartburn (GERD) and IBS, Winner says.
Alzheimer's disease. One animal study found that stress might worsen Alzheimer's disease, causing its brain lesions to form more quickly. Some researchers speculate that reducing stress has the potential to slow down the progression of the disease.
Accelerated aging. There's actually evidence that stress can affect how you age. One study compared the DNA of mothers who were under high stress -- they were caring for a chronically ill child -- with women who were not. Researchers found that a particular region of the chromosomes showed the effects of accelerated aging. Stress seemed to accelerate aging about 9 to 17 additional years.
Premature death. A study looked at the health effects of stress by studying elderly caregivers looking after their spouses -- people who are naturally under a great deal of stress. It found that caregivers had a 63% higher rate of death than people their age who were not caregivers.
Still, you might be wondering why. Why would stress make us sick? Why would an emotional feeling wreck havoc on our bodies?
Stress isn't only a feeling. "Stress isn't just in your head," Winner says. It's a built-in physiologic response to a threat. When you're stressed, your body responds. Your blood vessels constrict. Your blood pressure and pulse rise. You breathe faster. Your bloodstream is flooded with hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
"When you're chronically stressed, those physiologic changes, over time, can lead to health problems," Winner tells WebMD.