Can Stress Kill You?

Medically reviewed by Lauren Fawley , LPC
Updated March 21, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

It's well-established that persistent stress, to say the least, is not supportive of a person's well-being. However, due to the prevalence and expectation of stress in today’s society, the possible toxic effects are often minimized or ignored. Simply ignoring stress-induced issues will not make them go away, and instead can prevent someone from recognizing relevant warning signs of potentially serious side-effects.

Recognize The Possible Toxic Effects Of Stress

As much as it may be tempting to minimize your experiences with stress or pass them off as something that you should “just deal with,” the fact of the matter is that ongoing stress can be severely detrimental to a person’s health - and not just in the sense that it takes up mental space, though this is worthy of addressing in and of itself. 

Stress can indeed be dangerous and potentially fatal for an individual in the long term, though there are a plethora of factors involved that can alter the impact and degree of impact that stress has on someone.

A General Overview Of Stress

There are several different kinds of stress. Acute stress is the most frequently experienced form of stress and generally happens when minor frustrations or pressures arise. In most cases, acute stress is short-term and can be overcome with effort or time. Short-term, minor stress is the mildest manifestation of stress, and it is not typically something to worry about.

Next comes episodic acute stress. This type of stress occurs when a stressor becomes habitual or consistent. When someone is regularly going through episodic acute stress, this is sometimes a sign that they may not have resolved an ongoing problem in their life. In other cases, episodic acute stress can be a warning sign that a change is necessary, often involving addressing what is causing the stress. Episodic acute stress can be especially hazardous because people are more susceptible to adapting to it rather than working through it to minimize or eliminate it.

The most dangerous kind of stress is chronic stress. By the time someone reaches the point of chronic stress, the feelings of discomfort and mental weight associated with acute stress may have become ever-present and overwhelming at times. Chronic stress can happen in relation to an unresolved stressor, and in other cases, such as those where someone faces a large number of stressors on a continual basis. Not having adequate release or coping tools may be a factor in this. Either way, an individual who faces chronic stress may experience a number of serious health ailments and is at an increased risk of significant physical and mental health conditions.

How Does Stress Affect Us?

The impacts of stress can be hardly noticeable at first. That said, ongoing stress does have the potential to lead to hospitalization and an increased risk of mortality. Many people don’t realize this and might even become adjusted to chronic stress, accepting it as a part of their daily life. This does not serve a person well in the long run. Understanding exactly how stress can harm individuals and what can help minimize it can be important in the endeavor to lessen and healthily cope with stress. 

With that in mind, here are some things that persistent, chronic stress can lead to:

Attacks On The Immune System

When a person feels the impacts of stress on a consistent basis, their immune system may begin to become impaired. First, the immune system may quite literally "close" as the body attempts to fight off the negative chemical imbalances associated with ongoing stress. This particular internal shutdown happens when stress reaches chronic levels; furthermore, this explains why many individuals are more prone to sickness when they are regularly stressed out. Additional stress patterns also have the ability to weaken the immune system.

Attacks On The Heart

Stress often takes a toll on the human heart as well. During regular episodes of stress, blood pressure may elevate, which in turn causes small vessels within the body to experience strains. Over time, this can damage blood vessels, which can lead to lower amountof blood transportation to the heart or brain and the increased likelihood of experiencing a heart attack. 

According to statistics released by the CDC, 805,000 people experience a heart attack per year in the US alone, so this is a risk to take seriously.

Attacks On The Memory

Stress can impact emotions, learning, and both long and short-term memory capabilities. It can cause difficulty sleeping, which is linked to memory-related concerns as well as a potential increase in depression and anxiety symptoms. Additionally, stress is affiliated with accelerated aging and brain shrinkage.

Increased Likelihood Of Fatal Diseases

The increased likelihood of experiencing fatal diseases serves as yet another way in which stress can lead to mortality if left unaddressed. Liver cirrhosis, lung disease, and even cancer can be linked to chronic stress. This does not mean that every individual who experiences high levels of stress will find themselves face-to-face with one of these concerns. However, an individual's susceptibility to these diseases does increase with chronic stress, especially if they are regularly exposed to additional risk factors.

Leading Causes Of Stress

Knowing the leading causes of stress can encourage people to take the initiative to implement preventative steps to navigate situations which could generate stress and harm their mental, emotional, and physical livelihood.

In most cases, contact with events, places, and individuals which are trying or demanding tend to generate stress. This can manifest in an individual's workplace, at home with their families, or in a situation where they have too many obligations. Financial hardship and significant life changes are also leading causes of stress. Whenever a person finds themselves in a situation where they are unsure of what to do, where they feel overwhelmed, or where they feel helpless, it can cause serious strain.

Trauma that has yet to be resolved can also generate stress, even on an unconscious level. Under these types of circumstances, a person may or may not live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Therapy can help address trauma, PTSD, and other related concerns as well as general life stressors.

Stress Doesn't Have To Take Over

Reading about the damaging impacts that stress can have on people may be understandably troubling and unsettling. However, there is good news: stress doesn't have to take over. If you face chronic stress, or if you feel as though you may be exposed to certain risk factors which are tied to stress, then this may be a sign that a need for certain changes is in order.

These changes may involve changing your environment, letting go of certain friendships, relationships, and obligations, working less, or something else that is unique to you and your life. Other changes may include an increase in personal stress management techniques, modifications to your daily routine that allow you to better support your health, and asking for help in the form of therapy or counseling. Peer support options and positive social relationships at large can be a helpful addition as well.

If you notice signs of any of the health effects discussed in this article, make sure to reach out to a qualified medical doctor as this article is not meant to diagnose any health conditions or serve as a replacement for healthcare.

It's Okay To Ask For Help

Coping with stress is a serious feat and sometimes you can't do it all on your own, and that's okay. Knowing when to ask for help is an important skill to take pride in, and it can make a significant difference in your life, especially when you're having a tough time or are going through something particularly challenging. You don’t need to wait until it feels overbearing or until the effects become severe. Putting effort toward stress management is valuable no matter where you’re at right now, and it can help you set yourself up for success in the future and learn how to cope with and lessen stress long-term.

Seeking Professional Guidance

As you undergo various life experiences, you may find that professional help and guidance have the potential to positively impact your life. Sometimes, people may tend to shy away from working with a therapist for various reasons. In certain cases, people are led to believe that accepting professional help means that something is wrong with them. Others may not have the time or means of getting to and from in-person appointments. 

However, receiving help is nothing to be ashamed of, and therapy is known as an effective form of care for stress as well as various other concerns, such as depression, anxiety, relationship issues, trauma, and much more.

Recognize The Possible Toxic Effects Of Stress

BetterHelp’s independent, licensed counselors have various specialties, and the sign-up process is fast and easy. Sign up for BetterHelp whenever you’re ready or reach out to a licensed counselor, therapist, psychologist, or social worker who offers talk therapy in your area so that you will have a safe space to talk about stress and find ways to manage it healthily over time.

Online therapy is discreet and can be conducted from your home or anywhere you have an internet connection. Additionally, sessions can be held via video call, phone call, live voice recordings, or in-app messaging. 

A 2017 study published in the National Library of Medicine explored the efficacy of online therapy for a variety of conditions and concerns. The study found that online cognitive behavioral therapy is effective for depression, anxiety disorders, stress, addiction, phobias, mood disorders, and more, particularly in areas where mental healthcare is limited. 


Although stress is a natural reaction that can be helpful in spurring us to take action, persistent stress poses significant health risks over time. These include increased risk of developing diseases such as heart disease or cancer, reduced memory and even brain shrinkage, sleep loss that further impacts health, decreased immune system function, and more. However, there are steps that can be taken to both cope with the effects of stress and minimize stress long-term to improve our mental and physical health.

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