What Do We Know About How Stress Impacts Physical Health?

Dr. Charles Raison answers the question: 'Stress Impacts On Phyiscal Health?'

ByCharles Raison, M.D., Director, Behavioral Immunology Program, Emory University School of Medicine
April 16, 2008, 5:50 PM

— -- Question: What do we know about how stress impacts physical health?

Answer: So we've learned a lot over the last 20, 30 years about how stress impacts physical health and like a lot of things in life, it's a little bit complicated. So for instance, short stressors, that are perceived as being a challenge, or certain types of physical stressors like exercise are actually good for your health. They seem to toughen you up, they seem to make you resistant and resilient in the face of other life stressors.

On the other hand, stress that is chronic, especially stress that's interpersonal -- bad things that happen between people. Those sort of stressors are really a risk factor for poor health. Now that doesn't mean that anytime you get stressed you're going to have a heart attack, or that everybody who's stressed out is going to develop illness. But what it does mean is that in large groups of people, the more people have stress, the more at risk they are for a number of illnesses.

Probably the best findings and the most consistent findings in terms of physical illnesses is this link between psychological stress and heart disease. So a lot of data now shows that people that are chronically stressed out, people that have catastrophic things happen to them are at increased risk of having cardiac problems. For instance, we know that after big natural disasters like earthquakes, there's a big spike in people dying of sudden cardiac death, where they just have a sudden heart attack.

There's also a lot of evidence that daily stress -- year in, year out -- sets people up to develop coronary artery disease so that they have problems getting blood to their heart, but also cerebrovascular disease, so that it increases the risk of stroke. Other illnesses for which there's evidence that stress is a risk factor include diabetes, obesity, and also unfortunately dementia. A lot of evidence the last few years that chronic stress may set people up to begin having cognitive problems later in life.

Next: What Are Some Of The Diseases/Conditions That Can Be Affected By Stress?

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