Effects of Stress on Health

General Characteristics

Stress occurs when the body does not adjust properly to internal or external stimuli. The body’s reaction to highly stressful situations is known as the “fight-or-flight” response. Under these circumstances, quantities of epinephrine (also called adrenaline), a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, are released into the blood. This stimulates the liver to provide the body with stored carbohydrates for extra energy. Other changes include quickened heartbeat and respiration, and increased blood pressure and muscle tension. The body is then prepared for extraordinary physical exertion.  If none is forthcoming, that built up tension may cause headache, upset stomach, irritability and a host of other symptoms.

While stress alone probably does not cause illness, it contributes to circumstances in which disease may take hold and flourish. Stress weakens and disturbs the body’s defense mechanisms and may play a role in the development of hypertension, ulcers, cardio-vascular disease, and, as recent research indicates, possibly cancer.

In most cases, we cannot do much to alter the stressful conditions in which we live. We can, however, improve the ways we react to potentially stressful stimuli through exercise, caution and a better understanding of our external and emotional environments in order to bypass some of the harmful effects. Some people have a stronger reaction to stress than others: little problems become major ones until life becomes a series of crises. Some diseases—for example, arthritis or other painful conditions—may also aggravate stress.

Effects of Stress on Health

Although it is widely believed that stress plays an important role in many illnesses, its exact mechanism is unclear. Mental and physical problems associated with stress include:


- Post-trauma stress syndrome
- Neuroses
- Transient situational disturbances


- Reduced resistance to infection
- Tumor promotion (?)


- Heart attacks (?)
- Coronary artery disease (?)
- Hypertension (?)
- Stroke (?)


- Failure to menstruate
- Impotence
- Incontinence


- Ulcers
- Irritable bowel syndrome

Stress and sickness

In today’s fast-paced, clamoring world, the body may find itself in frequent fight-or-flight responses to work pressures, noise pollution, overcrowding, and other stressful situations where direct physical outlets would not be appropriate. Under prolonged stress, the body’s adaptive and resistance mechanisms may become exhausted, and hormonal changes may weaken the body’s defenses against disease. A link between emotional stress and certain types of cancer has been suspected for more than a century; in fact, recent tests on animals have suggested that cancer-susceptible mice are much more likely to contract the disease when exposed to constant stress. Stress also has been linked to illness characterized by an immune-system defect, but so far, theories along this line have not been proven.

One of the most impressive and useful studies of stress and sickness began at the turn of the century with Dr. Adolf Meyer, a John Hopkins professor who kept “life charts” on his patients. These charts indicated that illness usually occurred around the time that major events took place in the patients’ lives. Researchers at the University of Washington later refined and systematized these findings by specifying the most stressful life events and assigning them differential point values. In examining the chart, we can see that life events may be either tragic or joyful; the common denominator among them is change. The more changes an individual undergoes during a give time span, the more points he or she accumulates and the greater the individual’s likelihood of having a serious illness or accident. For example, statistics indicate that a person who scores between 150 and 300 points during a particular period runs a 50 percent risk of falling seriously ill within two years. If the score exceeds 300, this likelihood shoots up to 80 percent.

Controlling stress

One of the most important findings of these studies is that most people can exercise a degree of life-style restraint to control the number of stress-inducing changes. The lesson is not that all change is bad but that there are recognizable thresholds beyond which additional change becomes health-threatening.

Other research points toward the benefits of regulating emotional and physiological responses to stressful events; thus, many people are learning to counteract life’s pressures through breathing exercises, meditation techniques, and regular participation in sports or exercise. In medical studies conducted at Harvard and elsewhere, it was found that these relaxation techniques can block the action epinephrine and norepinphrine, the adrenal hormones directly responsible for stress-induces changes.

Summing up

Environmental stress factors may be unavoidable, but it is possible to establish patterns of coping that minimize their adverse effects. A significant way to reduce stress and stress-related illness is to control, where possible, the number of major life changes that occur within a limited time span. Finding outlets, such as regular sports activity, to counter the buildup of tensions associated with stress also may help in coping with a stressful environment.

Stress Management Recommendations

  1. Keep physically fit through regular exercise.
  2. Assertiveness - Develop the ability to say "no" without feeling guilty.
  3. Accept yourself, and be good to yourself.
  4. Maintain a confidante with whom to discuss problems.
  5. Maintain stability zones - Keep some aspects of your life unchanging and stable; Avoid taking on more changes than necessary.
  6. Organize time more effectively.
  7. Reduce interruptions - Don't allow people to interrupt frequently.
  8. Set realistic expectations of one's self.
  9. Delegate to others rather than to take on too much responsibility.
  10. Be flexible.
  11. Think positively.
  12. Learn stress signals and do something about them early.
  13. Reward one's self for relaxation behaviors.
  14. Use environmental cues as a signal to relax, e.g., stoplights, telephone.
  15. Schedule lunch hours and other activities strategically to avoid crowds.
  16. Take mini-vacations rather than one-a-year long one.
  17. After a particular stressful day, use physical exercise to relieve the tension.
  18. Avoid business talk at lunch on a regular basis.
  19. Imagine yourself handling a difficult situation rather than anticipating failure.
  20. Develop hobbies and interests totally unrelated to your job.
  21. Take time for humor.
  22. Participate in clubs, social groups, and night classes.
  23. Develop a relaxation routine after leaving work.
  24. Be patient with imperfection – both one's own and others.
  25. Use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and visual imagery throughout the day.
  26. Get up 15 minutes early in the morning to reduce the rush and have plenty of time to enjoy something like a second up of coffee or talking to a family member.
  27. Have some time alone every day.
  28. Have a place to retreat at home.
  29. Plan some idleness every day.
  30. Listen to others without interruption.
  31. Read books that require concentration.
  32. Learn to eat slowly and savor food. Do not sit on the edge of the chair to eat.
  33. Avoid irritating, overly competitive people whenever possible.
  34. Plan leisurely, less structured vacations.
  35. Concentrate on enriching one's self.
  36. Live by the calendar, not the stop watch.
  37. Concentrate on one task at a time.
  38. Appreciate the beauty around one's self. Take time regularly to enjoy the sights, sounds, textures around one's self. Take time to smell the roses. Be careful of the bees.
  39. Keep a journal of events that cause one stress; become more aware of patterns.
  40. Take enough risks to be challenged but not overwhelmed.
  41. Get sufficient rest.
  42. Develop a sense of responsibility over one's actions, thoughts, feelings; a sense of helplessness tends to magnify Stressors.
  43. If stressful situations cannot be changed, accept that and learn more effective mechanisms to deal with it.
  44. Take one day at a time.