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.
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...
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.
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.