Stress and Illness

As I was mentioning on my other page ‘Stress and Health’, it is known that around 40 percent of people in the US and in the UK feel very or extremely stressed because of their job.

It is also thought that around 75 % of illnesses might be related in some way to stress.

These figures show that these days most people are simply stressed!

by Elia Strange


So what stress does to our bodies? How harmful it is?

Well, first of all, the effects of stress will be different from individual to individual.

What is stressful for you, might be simply ‘challenging’ for someone else. If your neighbour drives you to the wall so to speak, someone else might just laugh at it and not take it seriously.

Well, we are all – individuals, with our own personalities and abilities to cope with challenges of life.

When we feel we cannot cope with a situation, usually we feel stressed, and our stress hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol) become very active. These hormones activate our sympathetic nervous system, and this is why our heart beats faster, we perspire, and our blood pressure and even our breath increase.

At the same time, our blood vessels and muscles constrict, making us feel tense. Also, our pupils dilate and our hearing becomes more acute.

The release of stress hormones affect our enteric nervous system, which is located in our stomach. This is why we can feel ‘butterflies in the stomach’ in any situation that makes us nervous or stressed.

But, unfortunately, this also explains why people experiencing chronic stress often have irritable bowel syndrome or colitis.

Physiological Illness

Immune System

When we are stressed, our bodies spend a lot of energy producing stress hormones. The more energy spent, the less of it left to fight viruses and bacteria which is all around us at all times!

So the more stressful situation we experience, the less defence our immune system has.

When this happens, we catch colds and other viral infections much easier. Also, non-viral diseases, such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease are also lined to stress.

Physical or psychological stressors can affect insulin needs, leading to increased risk of diabetes.

Stomach area

Gastrointestinal diseases, such as peptic ulcers and ulcerative colitis, are known to be greatly influenced by stress.

Peptic ulcers occur twice as often in air traffic controllers as in civilian co-pilots, and occurred more frequently in the USA among air traffic controllers at high-stress control centres (Chicago O’Hare, La Guardia, JFK and Los Angeles International Airport) than at low-stress control centres (airports in less-populated cities in Virginia, Ohio, Texas and Michigan).

Ulcers are caused by excessive stomach acid, and anger and hostility increase stomach acidity, whilst depression and withdrawal decrease it.

Stress ulcers occur often in people who experienced trauma, surgery, or other catastrophic events.

Stress ulcers are quite different from peptic ulcers; they are acute, haemorrhagic (bleeding), and are usually preceded by shock.


Both tension headaches and migraines can be caused by worry, frustration and general lifestyle.

When there is no sufficient oxygen goes into our head and neck, particularly when the muscles are tensed (as you might feel, for example, after driving unfamiliar route, or writing an important letter to an official body), we experience aches.

When we take painkillers to stop the headache, we are not learning to prevent the problem.

We are simply masking the symptoms. What would be beneficial in this situation, is to learn relaxation techniques, take 5 min to stand up and stretch our bodies, learn short meditation and breathing techniques.

Heart disease

Typically, the heart beats 72 times a minute. When we stressed, the heart beats much faster, and our heart pressure also increases.

Coronary heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the US and UK. It is often thought that high cholesterol in the blood, smoking, obesity and high blood pressure cause heart disease.

But only around 50 % of cases can be explained by those factors. The remaining 50 % are thought to be linked to stress, particularly occupational stress (stress at work).


Depression affects most people. A depressed individual feel helpless and hopeless, and often shows the signs and symptoms of Stage 3 stress.

You might be surprised to find out that depression too, increases the production of stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) in the body. And these hormones, in turn, suppress the immune system.

This is why people who are depressed can experience headaches, asthma, ulcers, and coronary heart disease too.

As you can see, to become ill is easy, especially if you often find yourself in stressful situations.

You personality type (type A or type B) can make you suffer more or less from the effects of stress. Read here what to do when you are stressed and my other articles to learn how to manage and prevent stress in your daily life.

Other articles you might like:

Stress and your Health

Am I crazy? (Mental Health)

Am I depressed? (Test)

What is Mental Burnout and Breakdown

Best Ways to Manage your Stress

Signs and Stages of Stress

Stress and your Sleep

'Stress and Illness' Reference:

Edworthy, A. (2000). Managing Stress. UK, Buckingham: Open University Press.

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