Illness Caused by Stress

Some argue that stress is the most lethal killer of our day; it is an unavoidable aspect of our modern life, and there is no way to eliminate it entirely. However, it is critical to understand that stress is physically damaging and can cause serious illness. To better understand the relationship between stress and illness in psychology, let us look at the interaction between stress and our immune system and some studies on stress-related illnesses.

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Table of contents
    • First, we will look at illnesses caused by stress and anxiety.
    • Next, we will examine the relationship between stress and the immune system.
    • Then, we will explore the types of illnesses caused by stress.
    • We will explore illnesses that are associated with chronic stress.
    • Finally, we will explore the psychological illnesses caused by stress.

    Illnesses Caused by Stress and Anxiety

    It’s no secret that stress affects our bodies. However, it also has the power to affect our health seriously. One way that it does this is by acting upon our immune system. Our immune system is a complex combination of structures, cells, and proteins that flow through the bloodstream. It defends our body against bacteria and diseases caused by external and internal stressors.

    External stressors can be described as something that happens in your environment, such as stressful work deadlines or injuries.

    Internal stressors come from within us and are usually based on how we evaluate ourselves and our belief system, such as anxiety or depression due to low self-esteem.

    Tidbit: Stressors are psychological (internal) and physiological (external) stimuli that threaten a person’s well-being.

    Illnesses Caused by Stress stressed man holding his head StudySmarter

    Figure 1: Stressed man with his head in his hands.

    Our immune system is a defence mechanism that fights any stressor by using the memory of the germs it has previously fought. Suppose the immune system does not work efficiently. In that case, our body can become susceptible to many foreign infections and diseases, such as high cholesterol, heart attacks, and fluctuating blood pressure due to chronic stress.

    This article will examine the relationship between stress and the immune system and list some common types of illnesses caused by stress.

    Relationship Between Stress and the Immune System

    Our immune system contains white blood cells that are mainly responsible for fighting antigens (bacteria) in our body. They target foreign bodies (viruses) by producing antibodies and accumulating around the virus to destroy it. There are two types of white blood cells:

    • Phagocytes.

    • Lymphocytes: B cells and T cells:

      • B cells produce antibodies in the body’s fluids that destroy bacterial bodies.

      • T cells accumulate over the cell containing bacteria and destroy the bacterial bodies in the cell).

    Stress can reduce the effectiveness of our white blood cells and make us susceptible to various infections. For example, the increase in the corticosteroid hormone (stress hormone) decreases the number of lymphocytes.

    Stress can also indirectly affect our immune system, as some people resort to unhealthy habits such as drinking and smoking to relieve stress.

    Types of Illnesses Caused by Stress

    Does stress play a role in physical illness? It certainly does. Stress can affect the immune and circulatory systems, causing high heart rate or high blood pressure. Stress-related diseases include headaches and infections such as:

    • Infectious illness (flu) and fever.

    • Asthma.

    • Cardiovascular diseases, e.g., coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke.

    • Gastric ulcers.

    • Immunosuppression.

    • Diabetes.

    Let’s see how stress relates to immunosuppression, physical illnesses like cardiovascular problems, and mental health disorders.

    Role of Stress in Immunosuppression

    Mild stress can actually be good for us and have beneficial effects on our immune system. Evan et al. (1984) found that the immune system can be more efficient during short-term (acute) stress and less efficient during long-term (chronic) stress.

    The researchers measured the level of antibody (slgA) in the students. This antibody is responsible for fighting infections in our bodies. Researchers then measured students’ antibody levels after brief exposure to stressful stimuli. They found that the short exposure to stress actually increased their slgA levels.

    However, stress can reduce the efficiency of our immune system and make us vulnerable to serious illnesses. Stress increases cortisol (stress hormone) and adrenaline, which affects the production of white blood cells (e.g., lymphocytes) in our body and suppresses the immune system.

    As a result, the strength of our immune system (white blood cells) decreases, as does our ability to fight invading bacteria.

    Kiecolt-Glazer et al. (1984) studied the effects of chronic stress on our immune system. This research involved measuring students’ stress before and during their exams and determining the activity of their NK (natural killer) cells.

    Blood samples were taken from 75 medical students one month before their final exam (low-stress level) and on the first day of their final exam (high-stress level). The study measured the activity of the T cells (lymphocytes) of the immune system in the blood.

    Students also had to complete a questionnaire to measure their psychological states. They reported on things such as loneliness or stressful life events.

    The study found that T cells were higher in blood samples taken one month before the study, while they were low in blood samples taken during the study. NK cell activity decreased significantly from the first to the second sample. Those who reported additional stress due life events and loneliness had even lower NK activity levels.

    Immune system response was low in students who suffered from loneliness. It was also low in students who suffered from a life event such as depression or anxiety. The study concluded stress (the exam) reduces the activity of our immune system (as measured by T cells and NK cells), which fights disease in the body, making us more vulnerable to illnesses.

    Stress is associated with a weak immune system. Pereira et al. (2003) found that HIV-positive women, who also reported experiencing stressful life events, had a lower immune system response than HIV-positive women who did not report significant life stress.

    HIV compromises the immune system function. This is compounded in patients who experience significant stress. Pereira et al. found that women in the stress group suffered from precancerous cervical ulcers while the others did not.

    Illnesses That are Associated with Chronic Stress

    Stress leads to high cholesterol levels in the body via the production of adrenaline and noradrenaline by the sympathetic branch (SNS) of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). The cholesterol particles cause clots in the blood and the heart’s walls. As a result, high blood pressure and heart rate can ensue. High adrenaline levels can have the following effects:

    • The heart has to pump harder due to an increased heart rate.

    • Shrinkage of blood vessels increases blood pressure, causing them to wear out gradually.

    • Increased blood pressure can unhinge the plagues formed on the walls of the blood vessels, causing blockage of the arteries that lead to a heart attack.

    Tidbit: The autonomic nervous system also controls the body’s fight or flight system. It is mainly responsible for regulating bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing rate, urination, digestion, sexual arousal, pupillary response, etc.

    According to Holmes (2004), high blood pressure causes small lesions on the arteries' walls. Cholesterol particles can get trapped in these lesions, later leading to heart attacks and other diseases.

    Illnesses Caused by Stress doctor and patient in emergency room StudySmarter

    Figure 3: Patient speaking with a doctor in the emergency room.

    Evidence of the Role of Stress in Cardiovascular Illness

    Study 1: William et al. (2000) investigated whether anger is related to heart disease because anger activates the SNS similarly to the way that stress does. 13,000 participants underwent a 10-question anger scale that included some of the following questions:

    • Whether they felt like hitting another person when they were angry.

    • Whether or not they considered themselves to be hot-headed.

    • If they felt angry because they were not recognised for doing something good.

    Findings: None of the participants had a heart attack at the beginning of the study. However, when the participants were examined after six years, the following results emerged:

    • About 256 participants had suffered a heart attack.

    • Participants who had high scores on the anger scale had a higher risk of having a heart attack than participants with lower scores on the anger scale.

    • 35% of participants with moderate scores on the anger scale had a higher risk of suffering a heart attack compared with participants with lower scores on the anger scale.

    Conclusion: William et al. (2000) suggest that increased SNS, which occurs during stress and moments of anger, is strongly associated with cardiovascular disease.

    Study 2: Wilbert-Lampen et al. (2008) investigated the effects of short-term stress on cardiovascular disease. For this purpose, they observed how often people suffered a heart attack during the 1996 football World Cup in Germany.

    Findings: 2.66% of cardiac emergencies were reported when Germany played the football match, compared with days when Germany did not play.

    Conclusion: Short-term stress associated with watching your team play may also trigger cardiovascular disease.

    Research shows that stress is associated with cardiovascular disease. Shepp et al. (2000) found that people with heart failure, who also reported higher levels of psychological stress, had a higher risk of death.

    Individual differences may play a role in the occurrence of cardiovascular diseases. Rozanski et al. (1999) found that certain people were more likely to have a physical reaction to stress, with high blood pressure and heart rate, while others were not.

    Psychological Illnesses Caused by Stress

    Stress is associated with higher rates of depression and anxiety. Persistent stress results in excess cortisol in the bloodstream. Too much cortisol can cause disturbances in the transmission of noradrenaline and serotonin, two hormones that help regulate mood and emotional behaviour. Excess cortisol also leads to a hyperactive amygdala, which also functions to regulate emotions. All of these things reduce serotonin production, which puts us at a greater risk of developing depression.

    Workplace Stress

    The workplace has increasingly contributed to stress and stress-related illnesses over the years. Work will take up a significant portion of our lives. Clocking into stressful conditions or a stressful environment can have a profound impact on us. Many things in the work environment can elicit a stress response; however, two significant workplace stressors are workload and control.

    The workload is a significant contributor to workplace stress. Unmanageable amounts of work and unrealistic or impossible deadlines make workers feel overwhelmed and helpless. It creates an environment of persistent and unbridled pressure. Workers can feel rushed and powerless under unrealistic workloads.

    Conversely, insufficient workloads can make workers question their job security, creating stress about their future, financial status, and lack of career opportunities.

    Workload stress can make people feel powerless or helpless to change their situation or environment. In many workplaces, workload and major decisions are decided by other people like managers and directors, Not by the workers who are expected to abide by these decisions.

    Marmot et al. (1997) studied the relationship between workplace control and coronary heart disease in a five-year longitudinal study. Study participants went through a screening for cardiovascular disease and were grouped into workplace categories of either administrators, executives, or support staff. Participants then filled out questionnaires to establish workload and workplace control. Researchers found that those who reported the least job control were three times more likely to develop coronary heart disease over the course of the study.

    Illness Caused by Stress - Key takeaways

    • Stress causes cardiovascular diseases and immunosuppression.

    • Stress-related diseases include headaches and infections such as infectious illness (flu) and fever, asthma, cardiovascular diseases, gastric ulcers, immunosuppression, and diabetes.

    • Our immune system contains white blood cells, mainly responsible for fighting antigens (bacteria) in our body. There are two types of white blood cells: phagocytes and lymphocytes.

    • Stress can affect our immune system by reducing the effectiveness of our white blood cells and making us susceptible to various infections.

    • Workplace stress can be affected by workload and control.


    References

    1. Fig. 1 - Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash
    2. Fig. 2 - Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Illness Caused by Stress

    Does stress play a role in physical illness?

    Stress plays a role in physical illness as it can cause an imbalance in the functions of our body. For example, long-term stress can increase blood pressure and cholesterol levels, which can cause cardiovascular diseases. However, short-term stress might be healthy for our body and help us improve our immune system by increasing its strength in fighting bacteria in our body.

    What does stress do to the immune system?

    Stress does the following to the immune system: it increases cortisol (stress hormone) and adrenaline which affects the production of white blood cells, such as lymphocytes, in our body, suppressing the immune system.

    What mental illnesses are most related to stress?

    The mental illnesses most related to stress are depression and anxiety.

    Can stress cause flu-like symptoms?

    Stress can cause flu-like symptoms like fever, body aches, headaches, and difficulty breathing.

    How does chronic stress lead to illness?

    Chronic stress leads to illness by creating persistently high levels of adrenaline and cortisol, which contribute to immunosuppression and heart disease. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Stress leads to high ________ in the body via the production of adrenaline and noradrenaline.

    Something that happens in your environment, such as stressful work deadlines, is best described as which type of stressor? 

    Things that come from within us and are usually based on how we evaluate ourselves and our belief system (such as anxiety or depression due to low self-esteem) are best described as which type of stressor? 

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