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Staying Healthy in Times of Stress

Stress Can Make You Sick, but It Doesn't Have To
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WebMD Feature

Studies show people with medical conditions such as heart disease, mental illness, or other chronic diseases are most vulnerable to the negative consequences of stress, but healthy people are also at a risk.

The link between stress and heart-related problems has been widely studied, and researchers say that mental stress increases the body's demand for oxygen by raising blood pressure and heart rate. For people who already suffer from heart disease, this additional burden can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, and even death.

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Stress can also act as a trigger for heart attack or stroke in people with undiagnosed heart disease, according to David S. Krantz, PhD, chairman of the department of medical and clinical psychology at Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md.

He says stress can set off dangerous plaque ruptures in people who may not know that they're in the early stages of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, and those ruptures can lead to potentially life-threatening events like heart attacks or strokes.

Steven Tovian, PhD, director of health psychology at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare in Evanston, Ill., says stress also directly affects a part of the nervous system that controls the glands, heart, digestive system, respiratory system, and skin.

That means any pre-existing medical condition that is influenced by a nervous system response such as chronic pain, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), digestive disorders, or headaches is likely to become exacerbated by stress when the already overworked system becomes overloaded by additional stress.

In addition, Tovian says anyone with anyone who suffers from a history of mental illness, such as depression and anxiety, is also at risk for a worsening of symptoms at times of extreme stress.

Attitude Is Everything

But you don't have to be ill to suffer from the effects of stress on your physical as well as mental health. Stress can also make healthy people more vulnerable to sickness by weakening the immune system and making it easier to catch a cold or other contagious illness.

Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, says what happens is that certain components of the immune system become less effective at fighting off illness, especially those caused by viruses, when exposed to stress over days or weeks. But she says attitude plays a critical role in tempering that reaction.

"The main principle is that the effect on the immune system is not a factor of what's happening in the environment, but it's an effect of your perception of it," says Segerstrom, who is assistant professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky. "To the degree that you feel threatened or overwhelmed, the immune system will be affected more."

Segerstrom says that people who focus only on negative information to the exclusion of more positive information will perceive more stress and, therefore, suffer more serious consequences in their mental and physical health. That's why it's important to keep a balanced perspective on events going on in the world as well as closer to home.

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