can stress kill you
Healthy Living

Can Stress Kill You? Alissa Weighs In

May 30 2023

We all go through stressful periods in our lives and there is no doubt that prolonged stress is unhealthy. But can stress kill you?

Alissa Rusu, a nurse practitioner in our Youngstown market who specializes in behavioral health, breaks down what you need to know about stress.

What is stress?

Stress is seen by most as when a situation in someone’s life causes them to experience mental tension or worry.

There are three main types of stress:

  • Acute stress: This is when a dangerous situation occurs and your fight or flight response kicks in. This type of stress is short term.
  • Traumatic stress: This happens when someone experiences a life-threatening event that leads to feelings of helplessness and fear. Sometimes, traumatic stress can eventually turn into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Chronic stress: This is a type of long-term stress and happens as the result of you dealing with an ongoing life situation.

And while we know there is a bad type of chronic stress, did you know there is also a good type of chronic stress?

Bad stress is the type most of us know all too well. It is usually caused by negative events in our lives, like a divorce, a legal problem, the death of a loved one or an illness.

Good stress is a short-term response that occurs in the absence of a fear or threat. Have you ever been overwhelmed packing for a vacation, but were still excited to go? Have you ever experienced the thrill of riding a roller coaster? Or have a lot of decisions to make while wedding planning but still can’t wait to be married? These are examples of types of good stress.

“Good stress can be motivating, empowering and can help us grow in many ways. While bad stress can lead to many negative health impacts,” Alissa explains.    

What is the impact of stress on your body?

Stress is a great example of how physical and mental health go hand in hand.

Did you know that your body’s stress response actually starts internally? When you experience stress, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. This is the way our body protects itself from danger.

From there, the stress hormone cortisol is released at high levels in your body whenever you are experiencing any type of stress. However, besides regulating your stress response system, cortisol also helps regulate other aspects of your body, including your metabolism, blood pressure, blood sugar and sleep-wake cycle.  

Therefore, because of cortisol’s many important roles in the body, higher-than-normal cortisol levels can impact your health in a negative way.

Some of the physical symptoms stress can cause include, but are not limited to:

  • Chest pain
  • Digestive system issues
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Weakened immune system

Alissa shares, “it is important to recognize when your body is under significant stress so that you can take action.”

So, can stress kill you?

It is very rare for stress alone to kill you. However, the impacts of high stress levels on your body over time can lead to increased mental health problems, like depression and anxiety, as well as life-threatening problems, like high blood pressure or heart disease. So, for both your mental and physical health, it is important for you to learn how to deal with stress in a healthy way.

It is very common to feel overwhelmed and find it hard to concentrate or make decisions when you are stressed. It is very easy to develop unhealthy habits during these times, such as making poor diet choices or overeating, using drugs or alcohol and avoiding your support system.

Therefore, it’s important to learn positive coping skills that can help you combat stress. Positive coping skills include things activities like journaling, exercise, eating healthy, breathing exercises and meditation. It can be helpful to schedule time throughout your day to do things to quiet your mind and keep your body calm and relaxed.

“Unfortunately, stress is not something that can be avoided,” Alissa says. “We will all experience stress, whether good or bad, at some point in our lives. The most important thing you can do is be proactive. Developing daily healthy habits for both your body and mind will have the biggest impact on reducing and managing your stress levels. Also, learning and practicing healthy coping skills prior to experiencing stress will help you better navigate stressful situations when they do happen.”

And if you aren’t able to regulate your stress levels on your own, it may be time to talk to your primary care provider or a mental health provider.  

Learn about the primary care services we offer at Mercy Health as well as our behavioral and mental health services.

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