Can Stress Kill You?

By Gabrielle Seunagal |Updated April 5, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Debra Halseth, LCSW

It's pretty well established that stress, to say the least, is not supportive of a person's well-being. However, due to the unfortunate prevalence of stress, the possible toxic effects are often minimized or ignored. Alas, simply ignoring stress-induced effects will not make them go away. As a matter of fact, lacking the proper knowledge of stress can prevent someone from recognizing relevant warning signs.

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. The fact is that stress can be very dangerous and potentially fatal for an individual in the long term, though there are a plethora of factors involved that can alter the affect and degree of affect that stress has on someone.

A General Overview Of Stress

First and foremost, there are several different kinds of stress. Acute stress is the most frequent 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 some – perhaps even minimal – effort. 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 is the next level of stress and tends to occur when acute stress 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. Episodic acute stress is especially problematic 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 comes in the form of chronic stress. By the time someone reaches the point of chronic stress, this feeling may have become unrelenting and seemingly all-powerful. Chronic stress can happen after acute stress or episodic acute stress go untreated, but it can occur in other scenarios as well, 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 slow and sneaky. That said, ongoing stress does have the potential to lead to hospitalization and an increased risk of mortality. Many people fail to realize this and might even become adjusted to chronic stress, accepting it as a part of their daily life. One may push it to the side or overlook warning signs in the body and the mind. This does not serve a person well in the long run. Understanding exactly how stress can harm individuals in the world and what can help matters for everyone. Having and employing this knowledge has the power to save countless lives.

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

Attacks On The Immune System

When a person lives with ongoing stress on a consistent basis, their immune system begins to accordingly become impaired. First, the immune system will 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 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 opens the door to all kinds of additional, unwanted health issues. These unwanted health concerns include, but are not always limited to, lower amounts of 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 is known to 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 how damaging or harmful stress can be matters, and very much so. However, in understanding the impacts of stress, knowing the leading causes of stress makes a difference as well. Not only is this knowledge helpful for informational purposes, but it also allows 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 very damaging impacts that stress can have on people may be understandably troubling and unsettling. However, there is good news, and that news is that 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 is 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, 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 very 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. That said, it’s okay to reach out for assistance with stress management at any time. 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.

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 have a tendency to shy away from working with a therapist and there are various associated reasons. In certain cases, people are led to believe that accepting professional help means that something is wrong with them. Other times, people have reservations about sharing very intimate, personal details with someone who they don't know. 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.

At BetterHelp, there is no judgment. Our independent, licensed counselors have various specialties, and the sign-up process is fast and easy. Online therapy can make getting the help that you need more accessible and affordable. Sign up for BetterHelp today 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.

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