Whether it’s from work, relationships, or politics, you may feel like you’re always living with stress. Yet even if you feel like you can soldier on, high stress can contribute to several serious health conditions.
Brushing off the immediate symptoms of stress is only a short-term solution. Here are some health problems that can develop without healthy stress management.
“There is…overwhelming evidence both for the deleterious effects of stress on the heart and for the fact that vulnerability and resilience factors play a role in amplifying or dampening those effects,” writes Joel E. Dimsdale, M.D., in the paper “Psychological Stress and Cardiovascular Disease” for the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. By studying research on earthquake victims, Dismsdale noticed an increase in cardiac-related death due to acute stress.
According to the American Institute of Stress (AIS), acute stress can lead to inflammation of the arteries, which can lead to heart attack. The AIS also says a stressful lifestyle can incentivize people to cope with behaviors that are unhealthy for the heart, such as smoking.
Worsened immune system
The human immune system usually can bounce back from stress responses without much effect, according to the paper “Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry” by Suzanne C. Sergerstrom and Gregory E. Miller in the journal Psychological Bulletin. However, as we age, the immune system loses its flexibility in responding to stressors, making us more prone to disease. The paper’s authors also suggest maintaining high levels of stress for a long time can make us more vulnerable.
“Stressors with the temporal parameters of the fight-or-flight situations faced by humans’ evolutionary ancestors elicited potentially beneficial changes in the immune system,” they write. “The more a stressor deviated from those parameters by becoming more chronic, however, the more components of the immune system were affected in a potentially detrimental way.”
A spike in cortisol production can help cause higher insulin levels, which makes your blood sugar drop, according to WebMD. This is why people crave unhealthy “comfort food” in response to a stressful situation.
Stress-related weight gain might be caused by more than just dietary choices. According to a 2012 study in the journal Current Obesity Reports, stress can promote extra fat storage around the stomach.
The Office on Women’s Health from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services says stress can intensify premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms or cause irregular menstrual periods. These symptoms can include body aches, breast tenderness and bloating as well as more several psychological symptoms like crying spells, aggression and anxiety.
Difficulty becoming pregnant
A 2011 study in the journal Fertility and Sterility observed almost 300 women ages 18-40 who were trying to conceive. Researchers found stress significantly reduced their chance of conception over the six cycles of the women’s fertility that the researchers studied.
According to the Office on Women’s Health, stress can affect the potential for pregnancy even earlier than that. Their experts say women with long-term stress may take longer to get aroused and may have less sex drive than women with lower levels of stress.
Harvard Health Publishing found evidence that the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for emotion, is generally smaller in depressed people. Stress may contribute to this because because experts believe exposure to cortisol impairs the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus.
While chronic stress doesn’t necessarily cause depression in everyone, stress can be a factor in its development. “Your genetic makeup influences how sensitive you are to stressful life events,” they write. “When genetics, biology, and stressful life situations come together, depression can result.”