What Happens If Stress Is Left Untreated?
Stress doesn't just make us feel bad emotionally. It can make us physically sick.
Everyone feels stressed from time to time. Stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand. Any type of challenge—such as presentation at work, a significant life change or a traumatic event—can be stressful. "People deal with stress in different ways," says Sophia L. Thomas, DNP, APRN, FNP-BC, PPCNP-BC, FNAP, FAANP and President of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. "Some people deal with it just fine and don't have any physical effects. Others have a hard time. They live a stressed out life. Those are the people who can't cope with stress as well and have physical symptoms that put them at a higher risk for developing complications."
In fact, a recent survey of over 3,000 women conducted by HealthyWomen, Prevention magazine and health care communications agency GCI Health, discovered that 40 percent of women experience stress constantly—multiple times a day. Twenty-six percent experience it daily, and 22 percent experience it once or twice a week.
Learn about some significant health problems related to stress (below) and click here to learn how to cope with common causes of stress.
Stress can increase heart rate and blood flow and release cholesterol and triglycerides into the blood. Sudden emotional stress can trigger heart attacks, abnormal heart rhythms, heart palpitations and other serious cardiac problems. "The long-term consequences of stress can increase heart rate, raise blood pressure, and put you at risk for cardiovascular disease, the number one killer of women," says Thomas. Stress may lead to bad behaviors like smoking, physical inactivity, alcohol abuse and use of illicit or prescription drugs. These poor habits can cause health complications like heart disease as well as liver problems and sleep disorders.
Stress causes high levels of the hormone cortisol, a hormone which manages fat storage and energy use. That seems to increase the amount of fat deposited in the belly. Excess fat in the belly poses potential health risks like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Cortisol also is known to increase appetite and may promote cravings for sugary and fatty foods. Plus, you may overeat when you're stressed to cope with what's going on. "It's an unhealthy coping mechanism," says Thomas. "So obesity is an indirect result of the way you cope with stress."
Stress factors into gastrointestinal issues, producing physical symptoms like chronic heartburn (aka GERD), belly aches, upset stomachs and nausea, says Thomas. You may have difficulty swallowing or experience dry mouth. Stress doesn't cause ulcers, but it does worsen them. Stress can also cause inflammation of the gastrointestinal system, making you more prone to contracting infections. "Chronic stress lowers your immune system, so you're prone to infections from elevations in stress hormones for a long period of time," says Thomas.
You're more likely to get headaches when you're stressed. Stress is a common trigger of tension-type headaches and migraines; it can trigger other types of headaches or make them worse. It's often the everyday stressors—traffic, work annoyances, toddler tantrum—that may impact your ability to cope. "Along with that stress, people may clench or grind their teeth," says Thomas. "That can lead to TMJ (which can cause pain in your jaw joint and in the muscles that control jaw movement), which can also cause headaches."
Stress doesn't necessarily cause diabetes. But it can worsen the condition. Stress increases the likelihood of poor behaviors like unhealthy eating and excessive drinking. And mental and physical stress may raise the blood-sugar levels of those with type 2 diabetes. Blood-sugar levels of those with type 1 diabetes may rise or fall with mental stress; with physical stress, it will rise for those with type 2 diabetes.
Stress—whether chronic (such as taking care of a parent with Parkinson's disease) or acute (such as losing a job)—can lead to major depression in susceptible people. "Unchecked depression has further complications down the road," says Thomas. "We worry about mental health problems that can occur as a subsequence of having long-term stress." Chronic stress leads to changes in hormones. When these chemical systems are working normally, they regulate biological processes like sleep, appetite, energy and sex drive. When the stress response doesn't shut off and reset after a difficult situation has passed, it can lead to depression in susceptible people.
Several studies have found links between a woman's levels of day-to-day stress and reduced chances of pregnancy. For example, women whose saliva had high levels of alpha-amylase, an enzyme that marks stress, took 29 percent longer to get pregnant compared to those who had less. Your body is smart; it knows that it's not good to have a baby when you're stressed. Plus, stressed women likely have less sex. And they may be more likely to smoke or drink too much alcohol or caffeine, behaviors which don't increase their chances of conception.
Looking for ways to manage your stress? Check out these ways to simplify stress in your life.