Health Problems Caused by Stress

Most people have experienced stress, and they all know it has an apparent negative impact on their health. From the lost sleep the night before an important event to the headache experienced after an evening of studying, the symptoms of stress are real and bothersome.

stress problems

However, stress causes more than just headaches and insomnia. In fact, the effects of stress can be aversive enough to increase the risk of death. That is not to say that a person is likely to drop dead after being stuck in rush hour traffic, but he or she may want to find a way to reduce stress, especially after learning about these few common health issues associated with chronic stress.

Stress and Heart Disease

According to the 2005 text Essentials of Psychology by Douglas A. Bernstein and Peggy W. Nash, chronic stress is a contributing factor to psychophysical illnesses, such as hypertension, also known as high blood pressure. Because of its correlation with an elevation in blood pressure, stress can contribute to coronary heart disease, the clogging of the vessels that nourish the heart by the buildup of plaque.

In addition, the pessimism often associated with stress can lead to the onset of heart disease, especially in men. Over a 10- year period, pessimistic men are twice as likely as their optimistic counterparts to develop heart disease (Kubzansky, et al., 2001).

Type-A personalities, which are characterized by extreme drive, ease of anger, apparent impatience, and the tendency to overwork, are also present in those with chronic stress, making those with a Type A personality more likely to suffer from heart attacks as well. Modifying Type-A lifestyle factors has been proven to reduce the recurrence of heart attacks (Bernstein & Nash, 2005).

Immune Deficiency

The negative impact of stress is clearly evident in its effects on the immune system as well. During times of stress, energy is mobilized away from the immune system, making it vulnerable to viral infections. In fact, in studies on the effects of stress, those with the highest life stress scores were the most vulnerable to contracting the cold virus when exposed to it experimentally. Because of its negative impact on the immune system, chronic stress can also accelerate the progression from HIV to AIDS (Berstein & Nash, 2005).

Stress' Contribution to Obesity

Weight gain is one of the leading indicators of a stressful lifestyle. When stressed, people often turn to food for comfort, which obviously results in weight gain.

Once they gain weight, the number of fat cells in their bodies increase, making it harder for them to lose the weight they’ve gained (Berstein & Nash, 2005). In addition, when people worry about weight gain, they add even more stress to their lives, creating a vicious cycle.

Smoking and Lung Disease as Result of Stress

According to developmental psychologist Dr. Jessica Garrett, smoking is socially rewarding during times of stress (J. Garrett, personal communication, January 2009). She also mentioned that the nicotine in cigarettes aids people in their journey to cope with stress, as it takes away negative feelings by triggering the release of epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, and opiates in the brain.Nicotine in itself is even rewarding, making those who are stressed vulnerable to cigarette addiction, and ultimately, lung disease.

Preventative Measures Against Stress

What can people do to avoid stress and the side effects that come with it? According to Garrett, simply having a more positive outlook can yield strong improvements. This is because an optimistic explanatory style tends to result in people having more control over stressors and being able to better cope with what stress they do experience. When people constantly expect the worst after experiencing stressful, aversive events, they begin to suffer from “learned helplessness,” which only leads to more stress. However, if people can learn to be optimistic and learn from their mistakes, they can reduce future stress.

In addition to a positive outlook, aerobic exercise can also reduce the negative impact of a stressful lifestyle. Repeated studies have suggested that aerobic exercise elevates mood and well-being, raises energy, increases self confidence, and lowers tension and anxiety (Bernstein & Nash, 2005). Exercise also improves heart health and energy metabolism, helping to eliminate the risk of obesity and heart disease associated with chronic stress.

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