Stress and Your Health: It’s All Connected … So What Can You Do About It?

By Debra Gordon


How Stressed Are You?

  • Learn the Psychological & Physical Signs of Stress

  • 10 Research-based Ways to Relax
  • Newspaper reporter Tim Beidel spent years coping with a stiff neck. By 1992, however, the pain was so bad he could barely turn his head. He thought it might have something to do with stress, so he attended a stress management seminar for employees at his newspaper.

    “The facilitator went through a list of things you could do to reduce stress,” he recalls. “I approached her afterwards and asked her what to do if you had tried all those things already and they hadn’t worked. She said, ‘Then you need to find another job.’”

    So Beidel did. He moved from general assignment reporter to copy editor. And, as he puts it, “When I stopped calling people every day to ask, basically, ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’ and moved to grammar and spelling checks and headline writing, my neck got better – almost instantly.” Not only that, but for the first time in years he was able to fall asleep immediately – and sleep through the night. Today, Beidel directs interactive development for an advertising agency, and, he says, hasn’t had a stiff neck since he started this job.

    Such is the power of stress over your health.

    In fact, the American Psychological Association notes that 75 percent to 90 percent of all visits to physicians’ offices have stress-related components, and 43 percent of adults suffer adverse health effects from stress. Everything from depression, heart disease and diabetes, to skin rashes, back pain and digestive problems can be traced to stress. And no, it’s not all in your head.

    The connection is related, as are many things in our bodies, to hormones. When we’re stressed, whether from a bad day at work, a traffic jam or even the birth of a new grandchild (yes, there is good stress), our body sends out hormones to prepare us to physically meet the challenge. This response is a remnant from our caveman days, when the threat we faced wasn’t an imminent deadline, but an imminent tiger. So these hormones – including cortisol, epinephrine and adrenaline – send a volley of signals to various parts of your body telling it, in essence, to get the heck out of there.

    For example, your liver releases glucose to provide instant energy to muscle cells. Your lungs expand to take in more oxygen, your heart beats faster and your blood pressure rises to send more oxygen-rich blood throughout your body even as your bowel and intestinal muscles contract. All of this can lead to common stress-related conditions, ranging from high blood pressure, chest pain and gastric reflux, to constipation and irritable bowel syndrome, or depression, anxiety and fatigue.

    It can also make you fat. Cortisol is not only a powerful appetite trigger, but chronically high levels of cortisol actually stimulate the fat cells inside your abdomen to fill with more fat, creating a life-threatening form of fat called visceral fat, which puts you at higher risk for heart disease and diabetes.

    Stress also inflicts its damage in more insidious ways by affecting the very system that is supposed to guard your health: your immune system, says stress researcher Esther M. Sternberg, M.D., director of the Molecular, Cellular and Behavioral Integrative Neuroscience Program and chief of the section on Neuroendocrine Immunology and Behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health.

    Like most systems in the body, the immune system has a feedback loop, Sternberg explains. After it finishes attacking foreign invaders with inflammatory chemicals, the brain sends out cortisol – the stress hormone – to shut down this inflammatory response and send the immune system back into a quiet, or homeostatic, state. But if your body is releasing cortisol all the time – as it does under chronic or acute episodic stress – then your immune system is constantly being suppressed, increasing your risk of illness.

    This is exactly what studies find. For instance, researchers at Ohio State discovered that the flu vaccine doesn’t work very well if you’re stressed when you get the shot.


    Look on the Positive Side

    The good news is that the opposite is also true; learning to control stress – or, at least, the way you react to stress – can serve to buffer your immune system, protecting you against those often harmful cascades of stress-related hormones.

    In one recent study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, healthy first-year law students who held optimistic beliefs before starting school had higher levels and function of key immune cells in the middle of their first semester than more pessimistic law students who were apprehensive and uncertain about their ability to succeed.

    Seems that this “optimism,” or personal resilience, forms a kind of personal shield of armor against the harmful effects of stress.

    “Personal resilience is the ability to bounce back from what life has to dish out,” says Patricia O’Gorman, Ph.D., author of Dancing Backwards in High Heels: How Women Master the Art of Resilience. It’s a trait that’s often developed in adversarial situations, she says, and honed by necessity.

    Ideally, O’Gorman says, you should develop your personal resilience before a crisis hits. One way to do that is by appreciating all you do instead of worrying about all that remains to still be done.

    “If you’re feeling more capable, you’re feeling less stressed,” she notes. A sense of humor is also critical, she adds. “Resilient people tend to be able to take something and make it into nothing, and that’s what humor does. If you can laugh at it, then you’re decreasing your tension.”

    It’s also important to realize that you have choices in your life, and that there are always second chances. So you don’t have to handle everything perfectly the first time, she says. And remind yourself that even the very worst situation, event, or feeling eventually passes.

    That doesn’t mean ignoring reality. “It just means reframing it,” says O’Gorman. “If you frame yourself as capable and a superwoman or man, then you’ll feel more empowered.” And with that empowerment, you will feel less stressed and overwhelmed, which, in turn, can protect your health.

    For instance, a study published in 2000 in the journal Health and Psychology, found that how a woman perceives stress can affect her health as much as major stressors like poverty. The researchers had women place themselves upon a picture of a ladder representing where people stood in society economically – with those who were best off at the top and those worst off at the bottom. Women who perceived themselves as lower on the socioeconomic ladder, regardless of their actual socioeconomic status, had more stress hormones than women at the same socioeconomic level who perceived themselves as being higher on the ladder.

    More good news on the stress front: You’re likely to experience less stress as you age, particularly if you’re a woman, says Mimi Francis, a nurse practitioner and behavioral therapist who teaches women how to de-stress at a holistic spa in Vermont.

    “Once you hit your late 60s and beyond, the things that used to stress you out don’t seem to be as big a deal,” she says. “You’ve matured and are better able to put things into perspective.”

    That’s not to say older people don’t have stress, such as the death of a spouse and learning to live alone again, Francis says. “But certainly their life experience allows them to put their stress into perspective in terms of how important it is.”



    Organizations & Web Sites

    American Institute of Stress
     914-963-1200 – A clearinghouse for information on stress-related matters.

    The American Psychological Association
     – 800-374-2721 – Offers numerous articles on stress and relieving stress, as well as a free brochure called “The Road to Resilience,” at

    National Women’s Health Information Center
    – This government site provides information on stress and stress-related illnesses.

    Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
    – 301-443-4795 – The federal agency charged with improving the quality and availability of prevention, treatment and rehabilitative services in order to reduce illness, death, disability and cost to society resulting from substance abuse and mental illnesses.



    The Balance Within
    , by Esther M. Sternberg, W.H. Freeman and Co., 2000

    Dancing Backwards in High Heels: How Women Master the Art of Resilience
    , by Patricia O’Gorman, Hazelden Publishing Group, 1997

    The Tending Instinct
    , by Shelley E. Taylor, Time Books, 2000

    Debra Gordon is an award-winning health writer and editor who frequently writes for Get Up & Go. Her most recent article was “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Alzheimer’s … But Were Afraid to Ask.”
    January 2005