Can stress kill you?

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated January 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

It's well-established that too much stress is not beneficial to 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 in day-to-day life will not make them go away; instead, doing so can prevent someone from recognizing relevant warning signs of potentially serious side effects.

Chronic stress puts individuals at risk for numerous health problems, including cardiovascular issues, digestive issues, and mental illnesses. Prolonged exposure to stress can also lead to high blood pressure and negatively impact heart health. In severe cases, it may even contribute to premature death. To manage stress effectively, it's essential to recognize the physical symptoms and implement coping strategies in everyday life. Techniques such as deep breathing and exercise can help alleviate stress while consulting a clinical psychologist or healthcare provider can provide further guidance and support in dealing with stressful situations.

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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. When you experience a stress response or feel stressed momentarily, it often falls under this category.

Next comes episodic acute stress. This type of stress occurs when a stressor becomes habitual or consistent, and you are experiencing a “fight or flight response” on a regular basis. Chest pain, shoulder pain, and changes in heart rate can be associated with level of stress. When someone is regularly experiencing the release of stress hormones or 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. Long-term stress may impact the nervous system and digestive system, leading to chronic illness if left unaddressed.

The most dangerous kind of stress is chronic stress. How much stress a person can withstand will vary, but by the time someone reaches the point of chronic stress, the mental weight associated with acute stress may have become ever-present and overwhelming. 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 our physical and mental health?

Noticing the ways that stress affects us can be difficult 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. 

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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 responds by fighting 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 amountsof blood transportation to the heart or brain and an 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. The Mayo Clinic Staff also reports that chronic stress can contribute to the development of heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, and stroke. Prolonged stress can negatively impact heart health, making it essential to manage stress effectively and seek medical attention for any concerning symptoms.

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 that could generate stress and harm their mental, emotional, and physical livelihood.

There are a number of potential causes for stress, including unhealthy habits, interpersonal problems, and overwhelming responsibilities. These challenges can manifest almost anywhere, such as in the workplace, at home with their families, or in any 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

Developing healthy habits and coping with stress are serious feats 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.

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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 for a personal interview with 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 healthy ways to manage it at your own pace.

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. 

Takeaway

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.

Ease stress and mental exhaustion

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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