Many of us have learned to simply accept stress as a normal part of the daily grind. It's almost even become a way we gauge one's work ethic; if you're not stressed, you're probably not doing enough. But as much as it's been ingrained in American culture that stress equates to success, the consequences can truly be life-threatening the longer it goes ignored. To find out how exactly stress can kill, we spoke with Athena Robinson, PhD, clinical psychologist, and chief clinical officer of therapy chatbot and app Woebot.
First, let's define the term. "Stress can be loosely defined as pressure or tension that one can feel emotionally and physically as a result of a situation or their interpretation about a situation," Dr. Robinson told POPSUGAR. And like all emotions, stress can tell us information, whether a deadline is coming down to the wire or you're late to your dinner reservation. In these cases, stress can actually be beneficial as it gives us an adrenaline rush and motivates us to get things done. But here's when it becomes a real issue.
"The trouble comes when someone feels high levels of stress on a chronic basis, especially regarding situations over which they have little or no control," Dr. Robinson said. On a psychological level, being overstressed can lead to conditions like depression, anxiety, and sleep problems. It can also impact your physical health by exacerbating chronic pain and increasing headaches, she explained. When you continue to have high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, Dr. Robinson said it can result in more severe consequences: decreased immune function and bone density, impaired learning and memory, and increased blood pressure. "The rumors are true . . . chronic stress can indeed lead to medical complications such as increased risk of coronary heart disease events and related mortality."
The good news is that the consequences of chronic stress can be reversed if caught in time. Depression, anxiety, and sleep problems can be improved with stress reduction techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness programs, and exercise. However, a physical side effect as severe as a stroke, for example, isn't reversible.
"Nonetheless, now is always a good time to learn how to manage stress if you are in need," she said. "Implementing helpful strategies sooner rather than later may help mitigate the number and severity of consequences you experience later in life."
If you experience the following stress signals, seek ways to effectively manage your stress immediately:
- Increased heart rate
- Pressure in chest
- Shallow breathing
- Increased body temperature
- Low energy
- Clammy hands
- Feeling down or depressed
- Repetitive thoughts about one topic
- Feeling hopeless
- Increased irritability or short temperedness
- Increased substance use