How Stress Effects the Body

Stress is an Aspect of Life that We Must All Face.

Stress comes in all shapes and sizes; even our thoughts can cause us stress
and make the human body more susceptible to illness and injury.

Centre for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States

The CDC estimates that stress account for about 75% of all doctors visits.

The morbidity and mortality due to stress-related illness and injury is alarming. Emotional stress is a major contributing factor to the six leading causes of death in the United States: cancer, coronary heart disease, accidental injuries, respiratory disorders, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.

According to statistics from Meridian Stress Management Consultancy in the U.K, almost 180,000 people in the U.K die each year from some form of stress-related illness.

According to Occupational Health and Safety news and the National Council on Compensation of Insurance, up to 90% of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related complaints.

Several studies have shown that chronic stress exerts a general immunosuppressive effect that suppresses or withholds the body’s ability to initiate a prompt, efficient immune reaction.

The critical factor associated with stress is its effect over time. These stressors include daily hassles, frustration of traffic jams, work overload, financial difficulties, marital arguments or family problems. There are, of course, many more things that can cause stress, but these are the stressors commonly encountered in daily life. The pent-up anger we hold inside ourselves toward any of these situations, or the guilt and resentment we hold toward others and ourselves, all produce the same effects on the hypothalamus. Instead of discharging this stress, however, we hold it inside where its effects become cumulative. 

Research shows that almost every system in the body can be influenced by chronic stress. When stress isn’t managed, it suppresses the body’s immune system and ultimately manifests as illness.

"If stress continues and the body can't manage it, there is likely to be breakdown of bodily resources." 

Medical Illnesses

Asthma, both external and internal factors are involved; it is the internal factor that is most affected by acute effects of psychological stressors.

Research has provided evidence for a clear association between stress, immune dysfunction and clinical activity of atopic and asthmatic disease. For further reference, Liu et al. provided excellent evidence that stress can enhance allergic inflammatory response.

Gastrointestinal Diseases, such as peptic ulcer and ulcerative colitis are known to be greatly influenced by stress.

Certain stressful life events have been associated with the onset or symptom exacerbation in other common chronic disorders of the digestive system such as functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGD), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Ulcers are caused by excessive stomach acid, and studies of patients with gastric fistulas have shown that anger and hostility increase stomach acidity, while depression and withdrawal decrease it. 

It has recently been discovered that many cases of ulcers are caused by a bacterial called Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). Although the exact mechanism by which it causes ulcers is unknown, it is believed that H. pylori inflames the gastrointestinal lining, stimulates acid production or both.

Coronary Heart disease (CHD), has long been regarded as a classical psychosomatic illness in that its onset or course was influenced by a variety of psychosocial variables. Psychosocial aspects of CHD had been studied extensively and there is strong evidence that psychological stress is a significant risk factor for CHD and CHD mortality.

The Tennant study found a positive relationship between life stress and cardiac infarction and sudden death; while the study by Rosengren reported that CHD mortality was increased two folds for men experiencing three or more antecedent life events. The INTERHEART study revealed that people with myocardial infarction reported higher prevalence of four stress factors: stress at work and at home, financial stress and major life events in the past year. 

One of the early evidence of this relationship came from the massive study of 1,600 hospital patients by Dunbar. He found that certain personality traits were characteristic of hypertensive patients; for example they were easily upset by criticism or imperfection, possessed pent-up anger and lack self-confidence.

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). Approximately half of the sufferers of this condition have a blood protein called the rheumatoid factors (RF), which is rare in non-arthritic people. Since RA involves the body turning on itself (an autoimmune response), it was hypothesized that high stress may manifest itself through this disease.

Research suggests that people with the RF who experience chronic stress become susceptible to RA. Their immunological system malfunctions and genetic predisposition to RA results in their developing of the condition.

Migraine Headaches, are the result of constriction and dilatation of the carotid arteries of one side of the head.

Predominant thought on the cause of migraine pertains to emotional stress and tension. Feeling of anxiety, nervousness, anger or repressed rages are associated with migraine.

Typical migraine sufferer is a perfectionist, ambitious, rigid, orderly, excessively competitive and unable to delegate responsibility.

Diabetes, evidence that emotionally stressful experience is associated with this endocrine disorder.

Type II diabetes is most often affected by stress, as it tends to occur in overweight adults and is a less severe form of diabetes.

Children who had stressful life events stemming from actual or threatened losses within the family and occurring between the ages of 5 and 9 had a significantly higher risk of type I diabetes.

Several other studies which demonstrated a relationship between psychological stress and susceptibility to several cold viruses. This is not surprising, as stress does suppress the immune system; latent viruses then have an easier time resurging since the body cannot defend itself any more.

Psychiatric Illness

A large body of research in the past four decades has provided evidence that recent life events contribute to the onset of psychiatric illness.

In the Bebbington study it found that there is an excess of life events preceding the onset of all types of psychoses, particularly in the first 3 months. 

Major life events are important in first onset of Mental Illness.

Those with greater genetic loading, there were fewer stressful life events before the first episode and they had the earlier onset of the disease.

A number of studies have shown that the onset of depression is often preceded by stressful life events.

Stressful life events along with recent minor difficulties have also been identified as predictors of an episode of depression in a monozygotic female twin study. Kessler who came with the same conclusion added that there is evidence that concomitant chronic stress enhances the effect of major life events on depression. 

Stress & Cancer

Studies of women with breast cancer have shown significantly high rate of disease among those women who experienced traumatic life events and stresses within several years before their diagnosis.
One area that is currently being studied is whether psychological interventions can reduce stress in the cancer patients, improve immune function and possibly even prolonged the survival.

A recent study found that there was a link between stress, tumor development and a type of white blood cells called natural killer (NK) cells. Of all the immune systems cells, NK cells have shown the strongest links to fighting certain forms of the disease, specifically preventing metastasis and destroying small metastases. Although the result of this study is not definitive, it does indicate that stress acts by suppressing NK-cell activity.

A new study shows stress and social supports are important influences in a man’s risk for developing prostate cancer.

Based on a recent study, the risk of having an abnormal PSA was three times higher for men with high levels of stress.

1. Cohen S, Kessler RC, Gordon LU. Strategies for measuring stress in studies of psychiatric and physical disorders. In: Cohen S, Kessler RC, Gordon LU, editors. Measuring stress: A guide for Health and Social Scientists. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1995. [Google Scholar] 

2. Lazarus RS. Psychological stress and the coping process. New York: McGraw-Hill; 1966. [Google Scholar] 

3. Selyes H. The stress of life. New York: Mc Graw Hill; 1956. [Google Scholar]

4. JOSHRC Newsletter More mental disorders or suicide may be certified as occupation-related. 2001 Jan;(22):57. [Google Scholar]

5. 2003. Self-reported work-related illness in 2001/02: Results from a household survey, (SW 101/02), HSE,

6. Jansen M. Emotional disorders in the labour force: Prevalence, costs, prevention and rehabilitation. Internat Labour Rev. 1986;125:605–15. [Google Scholar]

7. Simmons SP, Simmons JC. Measuring emotional intelligence. New York: Summit Publishing Group; 1997. [Google Scholar]

8. Pelletier KR. Mind as healer, mind as slayer. New York: Dell Publishing Co; 1977. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]

9. Hafen BQ, Frandsen KJ, Karren K, Hooker KR. The health effects of attitudes, emotions and relationship. Provo UT: EMS Associates; 1991. [Google Scholar]

10. Huebner HS. Burnout among school psychologists: An exploratory investigation into its nature, extent and correlates. School Psychol Quart. 1992;7:129–36. [Google Scholar] 

11. Segerstrom SC, Miller GE. Psychological stress and the human immune system: A meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychol Bull. 2004;130:601–30. [PMC free article] [PubMed][Google Scholar] 

12. Elliott GR, Eisdorfer C. Stress and Human Health. New York: Springer Publishing Company; 1982. [Google Scholar] 

13. Gauci M, King MG, Saxarra H, Tulloch BJ, Husband AJ. A Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory of woman with allergic rhinitis. Psychol Med. 1993;55:533–40. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

14. Liu LY, Coe CL, Swenson CA, Kelly EA, Kita H, Busse WW. School examination enhances airway examination to antigen challenge. Am J Resp Crit Care Medicine. 2002;165:1062–67. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

15. Drossman DA, Sandler RS, Mckee DC. Bowel patterns among subjects seeking treatment. Health Care. 1982;83:529–34. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

16. Greenberg JS. Comprehensive stress management. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2002. [Google Scholar] 

17. European Helicobacter pylori study group Current European concepts in the management of H. pylori information: The Maastricht Consensus. Gut. 1997;41:8–13. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

18. Chockalingam A, Venkatesan S, Dorairajan S, Mooorthy C, Chockalingam V, Subramaniam T. Estimation of subjective stress in acute myocardial infarction. J Postgrad Med. 2003;49:207–10. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

19. Tennant C. life stress, social support and coronary heart disease. Aust NZ J Psychiat. 1999;33:636– 41. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

20. Rosengren A, Orth Gomer K, Wedel H, Wihelsem L. Stressful life events, social support and mortality in men born in 1933. Brit Medi J. 1993;307:1102–5. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

21. Rosengren A, Hawken S, Ounpu S, Silwa K, Zubaid M, Akmahemeed WA, et al. Association of psychosocial risk factors with risk of myocardial infarction in 11,119 cases and 13, 648 control from 52 countries (INTERHEART study): case control study. The Lancet. 2004;364:953–63. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

22. Bass C, Akhras F. Physical and psychological correlates of severe heart disease in men. Psychol Med. 1987;17:695–703. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

23. Sparacino J. The type A behaviour pattern: A critical assessment. J Hum Stress. 1979;5:37–51. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

24. Byrne DG. Personal determinants of life event stress and myocardial infarction. Psychother Psychosom. 1983;40:106–114. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

25. Mathew KA, Glass DS, Rosenman RH, Bortner RW. Competitive drive, pattern A and coronary heart disease. A further analysis of some data from the Western Collaborative Group Study. J of Chron Dis. 1977;30:489–98. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

26. Barefoot JC, Dahlstrom WG, Williams RB. Hostility, CHD incidence and total mortality: A 25-year follow up study of 225 physicians. Psychosom Med. 1983;45:59–63. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

27. MacDougal JM, Dembroski TM, Dimsdale JE, Hacket TP. Components of type A personality and anger: A further relationship to angiographic findings. Health Psychol. 1985;4:137–52. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

28. Dembroski TM, MacDaugall JM, Williams RB, et al. Components of type A, hostility and anger in relationship to angiographic findings. Psychosom Med. 1985;47:219–33. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

29. Haynes SG, Feinleib M, Kannel WG. The relationship of psychosocial factors to coronary heart disease in the Framingham study III : Eight-year incidence of coronary heart disease. Am J Epidemiol. 1980;111:37–58. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

30. Tennant CC. Stress and coronary heart disease. Aust NZ J Psych. 1987;21:276–82. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

31. Friedman M, Rosenman R, Carroll V. Changes in serum cholesterol and blood clotting time in men subjected to cycle variations of occupational stress. Circulation. 1958;17:852–64. [PubMed]
Google Scholar] 

32. Dreyfuss F, Czaczkes J. Blood cholesterol and uric acid of healthy medical students under stress of examination. Arch Intern Med. 1959;103:708–11. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

33. Clark N, Arnold E, Foulds E. Serum urate and cholesterol levels in Air Force Academy Cadets. Aviat Space Envir Md. 1975;46:1044–48. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

34. Lamott K. Escape from stress: How to stop killing yourself. New York: G.P Putnam; 1974. p. 40. [Google Scholar] 

35. Dunbar F. Psychosomatic diagnosis. New York: Harper; 1943. [Google Scholar]

36. Stenstrom U, Wikby A, Hornquist JO, Andersson PO. Recent life events, gender and the control of diabetes mellitus. Gen Hosp Psychiat. 1993;15:82–8. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]

37. Glaser R, Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Malarkey WB, Sheridan JF. The influence of psychological stress on the immune system to vaccines. Ann NY Acad Sci. 1998;840:649–655. [PubMed] [Google Scholar

38. Cohen S, Tyrrell DAJ, Smith AP. Psychological stress in humans and susceptibility to the common cold. New Engl J Med. 1991;325:606–612. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

39. Cohen S, Frank E, Doyle WJ, Skoner DP, Rabin S, Gwaltney JM., Jr Type of stressors that increase susceptibility to the common cold in adults. Health Psychol. 1998;17:214–223. [PubMed][Google Scholar] 

40. Solomon GF, Kemeny ME, Temoshok LT. Psychoneuroimmunologic aspects of human immunodeficiency virus infection. In: Ader R, Felten D, Cohen N, editors. Psychoneuroimmunology. San Diego, California: Academic Press; 1991. pp. 1081–1114. [Google Scholar] 

41. Lyketsos CG, Hoover DR, Guccione M, Senterfitt W, Dew MA, Wesch J, et al. Depressive symptoms as predictors of medical outcomes in HIV infection. J Am Med Assoc. 1993;270:2563– 2567. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

42. Ironson G, Friedman A, Klimas N, et al. Distress and low adherence to behavioural interventions predict faster disease progression in gay men infected with human immunodeficiency virus. Int J Behav Med. 1994;1:90–105. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

43. Cole S, Kemeny M, Taylor S, Visscher B, Fahey J. Accelerated course of HIV infection in gay men who conceal their homosexual. Psychosom Med. 1996;58:219–231. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

44. Paykel ES. Contribution of life events to causation of psychiatric illness. Psychol Med. 1978;8:245–253. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

45. Vincent K, Roscentock H. The relationship between stressful life events and hospitalized adolescent psychiatric patients. J Clin Psychiat. 1979;40:262–264. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

46. Andrew G, Tenant C. Being upset and becoming ill: An appraisal of the relationship between life events and physical illness. Med J Australia. 1978;1:324–327. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

47. Andrew G, Tenant C. Life event stress and psychiatric illness (Editorial) Psychol Med. 1978;8:545– 549. [PubMed] [Google Scholar] 

48. Castine MR, Meaador-Woodruff JH, Dalack WH. The role of life events in the onset and recurrent episodes of schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorders. J Psychiat Res. 1998;32:283–288. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]