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By Janet Rowe | Homemakers.com | June 8, 2009

All that worry and anxiety can really put a strain on your body and make you sick. Find out why prioritizing stress relief may be just what the doctor ordered.

Why stress is bad for your health

A temperamental teen. Moving day and half the house still unpacked. Whether it’s a daily irritant or a huge life change, stress can seem inevitable. Still, you should try to overcome life’s pressures because beyond the mental worry, stressing out compromises your immune system and makes you susceptible to everything from colds to cancer.

But don’t panic! You can easily treat your stress — and that’s a lot better than tackling a serious illness later.

I feel fine. Should I really worry about my stress?

Excessive worrying may be a bad idea because when something rattles your cool, “it can definitely affect your physical health,” says Simon Bacon, assistant professor of exercise science at Concordia University.

Scientists have found links between stress and several diseases and conditions, including:

  • heart disease
  • cancer
  • asthma
  • arthritis
  • diabetes

And that doesn’t just mean that being sick is stressful, so the disease comes first, then the stress. It can go the other way around: “Stress actually causes disease,” says Bacon.

Figure out the stressful things in your life by paying attention to how you feel. Tense? Agitated? Listless and lacking energy? All these are symptoms of stress.

Look for patterns in your life as well as for major crises. Even small irritants that happen regularly are problematic because stress “accumulates and compounds,” says Bacon.

How stress can make you sick

Stress is bad for your health in two equally important two ways, explains Bacon. First, being stressed can influence your behaviour. Someone who is under a lot of stress may exercise less often, eat less well, and care less about properly taking medication.

Second, stress creates physical effects in the body. A sudden source of stress, such an argument, revs up parts of your nervous system that influence heart rate, breathing and digestion, and sends your body into a “fight or flight” state.

At the same time, it makes your body produce more cortisol, the “stress hormone.” When your body remains in this revved up, high-cortisol state for long periods — such as when you’re chronically stressed — its regular functioning starts to break down. In particular, your immune system may be unable to properly regulate itself.

Diseases and illness that stress provokes

Heart disease

For example, when your immune system is not being properly regulated, your arteries get inflamed and cells build up on artery walls. Blood can’t get through and you could have a heart attack.

Stress also affects your heart when it prevents you from eating well and keeps you from exercising. Doctors know that women who exercise 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week, quit smoking, and eat a diet high in fibre, omega-3 fatty acids and folate (and low in saturated fat, cholesterol and salt) have a lower risk of heart disease.

One scientific study of 30,000 people in 52 different countries, says Bacon, found that being stressed was the third most important risk factor for a heart attack — even more significant than having high blood pressure.


“Cancer, too, is an immune disease,” says Bacon. When your immune system works as it should, it spots normal cells that are turning into cancer cells and destroys them before they can spread.

But when chronic stress affects your immune system, existing cancerous cells can grow and new ones may even develop.

And just as for heart disease, a healthy lifestyle can prevent cancer. Watch that stress doesn’t prevent you from maintaining a healthy weight — there’s a well-known link between obesity and breast and ovarian cancers. And if

stress leads you to drink more — you should note that more than one alcoholic drink per day raises your risk for mouth, throat and liver cancers.

Asthma and allergies

A stressed immune system can also cause asthma and allergies when your body reacts to substances that are usually harmless. In addition, when you’re not looking after your health, you may fail to take preventative medications, opening yourself up to unnecessary asthma or allergy attacks.


An overwhelmed immune system can start to attack the body’s own organs. This is what happens with rheumatoid arthritis. In general, says Bacon, people who are chronically stressed are more likely to develop arthritis and among people who have arthritis, those who are stressed tend to have the worst cases.

Exercise helps an arthritis sufferer because it strengthens bones, muscles and tendons, all of which support joints. But it can be difficult to exercise when depressed — which is the case for about one fifth of people with rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors have found that when the depression is treated, the arthritis improves as well.

Diabetes and better coping skills for stress relief


The immune system is not the only part of the body that can be overwhelmed by stress. A breakdown in your nervous system and chronic high cortisol levels also affect metabolism, says Bacon. Your body may begin to make too much blood sugar, leading to diabetes and also affecting heart health.  If you have diabetes, monitor your health daily, control your diet, weight and exercise. When stress disrupts your coping routine, the disease can flare up.

Improving your coping skills and taming stress

Whether you’re dealing with a chronic illness or simply want to stave off future problems, reducing stress is important. Here are three solutions:

Exercise is an excellent way to get your zen on, because it helps with both the behavioural and physical problems caused by stress.

Some doctors maintain that moving your body may improve your mood by releasing “feel-good” chemicals called endorphins. And keeping active, especially moderate regular exercise, has been proven to protect your immune system. And as you focus on the movements of your body, you may find irritations fall away, giving you a break from worry.

Relaxation techniques also help both mind and body. Scientific studies show that when people practise relaxation, cortisol production reduces and the nervous system calms down, says Bacon. Try a meditation class or a deep breathing exercise. It can also help to spend time with friends (or take the time to make friends), especially if you share a good laugh).

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is an effective way to deal with stress, says Bacon, because it teaches you how to change behaviours that add to your tension.

For example, heavy traffic during the morning commute can ratchet up stress when you react by thinking “I’ll be late” or “other drivers are out to get me.” Cognitive Behavioural Therapy teaches how to replace such stressful thoughts with more helpful ones, such as “I’m almost always on time” or “I’m a good driver, I can handle this.”

Help is out there

For more reading, Bacon recommends the booklet “Coping with Stress,” published by the Heart and Stroke Foundation. “It doesn’t focus on heart disease specifically,” he says, “so anyone with any stress-related illness would find it useful.” [Order a copy from the Heart and Stroke Foundation] He also suggests a visit to the Canadian Mental Health Association’s website, which offers information, tips to try, and pointers to finding support.

Taming your stress might not just prevent illness — it can stop ongoing medical conditions from getting worse. “It’s never too late,” says Bacon. “Stress is always treatable. Anyone who is feeling stressed can seek help and can be helped.”