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Does Stress Cause Illness?

Causes of stress are all around. From jobs that demand long hours, tight deadlines, frequent conflicts and bumper-to-bumper traffic on the daily commute, to bills, debt and financial insecurity, to family relationships and responsibilities, it is little wonder that chronic stress — unresolved stress experienced over an extended period of time, and the most mentally and physically damaging kind — is a frequent affliction in modern society.

There is no question of the link between stress and illness. Chronic stress can not only bring with it a wide range of health problems, but can also exacerbate the symptoms of many preexisting medical conditions.

Stress and Mental Illness

Chronic stress increases your risk of developing depression or an anxiety disorder, and usually worsens symptoms in those with these or another preexisting mental health condition.

Stress and mental illness can easily get entwined in a harmful vicious circle: stress worsens symptoms, and, in turn, worsening symptoms create added stress.

Other Stress-Related Health Issues

When you think about the relationship between physical ailments and stress, you may immediately think of ulcers. While ulcers are certainly one potential result of chronic stress, the truth is that an unhealthy level of stress over a prolonged period of time has a negative impact on the entire body; therefore, stress symptoms can show up almost anywhere.

Take an Online Stress Test

Mayo Clinic Stress Assessment: Uses your responses to six ranking and yes/no questions to rate your stress level as low, moderate or high.

CMHA Stress Test: This test from the Canadian Mental Health Association asks you to answer a short list of yes/no questions and then gives you a numerical stress-index score with brief description.

CDC Stress-o-Meter: Stress quiz for kids provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Some of the areas in which you might experience stress effects include:

  • Heart. While a bit of short-term stress is generally good to get the heart pumping, chronic stress raises your blood pressure and increases your risk of developing heart disease.
  • Teeth & gums. People under stress often grind their teeth, wearing down tooth surfaces. They are also more prone to canker and other mouth sores, perhaps due to the fact that stress makes the body more prone to infection. One study also found a link between stress and higher levels of dental plaque, which leads to gum disease.
  • Jaw. In addition to or instead of grinding, stress can also cause jaw clenching, which can lead to tension headaches or, worse, a painful and chronic disorder called TMJ (temporomandibular joint, or the jaw joint). As with teeth grinding, many people clench at night while they’re sleeping, and wonder why they wake up in the morning with a headache because they have no idea their stress is manifesting in this way.
  • Muscles. Not only your jaw can seize up when you’re under stress — your muscles tense up too, even if you’re not initially aware of it. People with fibromyalgia tend to be extremely sensitive to this effect of stress.
  • Respiratory system. Excessive stress frequently leads to symptoms of anxiety, including shortness of breath and inability to take a deep breath, tightness or heaviness in the chest, and feeling like your throat is constricted. Also, a body under stress is a body with a weakened immune system and much more prone to bronchitis or other respiratory infection.
  • Digestive system. When you’re stressed out, you may feel like your stomach is tied in knots, and stress can have a very real effect on the digestive system in the form of heartburn, nausea and “butterflies,” as well as other, more unpleasant forms of digestive upset, including constipation or diarrhea. People who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or other irritable bowel disorders (IBD), such as Crohn’s disease, usually find their symptoms worsen during times of high stress.
  • Nervous system. Some stressed individuals exhibit a nervous tic or eye twitch.
  • Vision and hearing. Stress can cause vision problems such as spots, tracers, blurriness and, in rare cases, “hysterical blindness.” Recent research has also suggested a link between chronic stress and hearing loss and/or tinnitus (ringing in the ears).

Besides any or all of the above unpleasant symptoms, another way that stress leaves its mark is excessive fatigue. Not only is continuing to function in a stressed-out state exhausting, but stress can seriously interfere with both your quantity and quality of sleep — even if it is not causing you insomnia, stress can leave you feeling worn out even after you’ve had what you thought was a full night’s rest., and lack of restful sleep leaves you much more vulnerable to illness.

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