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.
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.
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.
Relieving Stress and Getting Help
To ease the negative effects of stress on your health, experts recommend the following tips to reduce your stress and keep your life in balance:
- Attempt to maintain a normal routine. Sticking to a schedule can help you feel more in control of your life even when the circumstances around you are chaotic.
- Make and keep connections with friends, family, clergy, and other confidants. Maintaining a strong social support network can act as a buffer against stress.
- Make time for things that you enjoy, whatever that may be, such as playing with your children or pets, exercise, reading a book, etc.
- Give yourself a break and stay away from things that rile you in times of stress. Limit contact with people or things that cause stress, especially around bedtime.
- Participate in a volunteer activity. Assisting others in a time of need can be empowering.
- Take care of yourself. Don't let stress affect your diet, sleep schedule, or exercise habits.
Tovian says there are also several warning signs to look for that can signal when stress levels are exceeding healthy limits. Symptoms of stress overload include:
- Disruption in sleeping habits
- Change in appetite or diet
- Change in mood, such as a loss of optimism or feeling overwhelmed
- Inability to put stress in long-term perspective or see the bigger picture
- Increase in anger or irritability
If you suffer from these symptoms, experts say it's important to reach out to family and friends. If your symptoms continue, seek out advice from your doctor or a mental health professional trained to deal with these issues.
Therapies to help people fight the health effects of stress usually target either altering factors in the environment that are causing stress or changing how people perceive and respond to stress through counseling on stress management, biofeedback, and/or drug treatment.