-- When 54-year old Benny Andujar went in for a routine checkup shortly after retiring from the New York City police force a few years ago, doctors found abnormalities in the cells close to his stomach, a condition called Barrett’s esophagus. Several months later he was diagnosed with cancer.
Andujar said he didn’t realize how much of a toll all the years he’d spent investigating some of city’s most notorious gangs and drug cartels had taken on his body. But he’s convinced all the pressure he was under for so long contributed to his illness.
“You go to work in the morning and you don’t know if you’re coming home in the evening,” Andujar said.
What Andujar experienced goes so far beyond the normal day-to-day hassle, doctors refer to it as “toxic stress.” This is the type of stress that is so sustained and unrelenting it can cause long-term depression and anxiety and an increased chance of developing chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
“This happens when stress is especially severe or long-lasting, and it exceeds support or coping mechanisms, said Dr. Amit Sood, Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic.
Sood said that toxic stress puts your body at war by revving up the activity in the glands that secrete stress hormones. These glands can tolerate short periods of high activity well but don’t hold up during long periods of extreme wear and tear. If stress and anxiety levels continue unabated, blood pressure elevates and immunity plummets, leaving the body vulnerable to physical and mental disorders, Sood explained.
People in dangerous or high stress jobs such as Andujar are candidates for toxic stress. So are victims of domestic abuse. It can be especially dangerous for children.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences studies performed in the late 1990’s established a strong link between toxic stress in childhood and the risk of obesity, depression, alcoholism, smoking and other risk factors in adulthood. Additionally, children who have high stress levels due to poverty, neglect, abuse, or severe maternal depression have been shown to have a weakened architecture of the developing brain leading to long-term consequences for learning, behavior, and overall health.
According to Dr. Robert Block, a former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, toxic stress is so insidious, it affects individuals at the cellular level.
“It can actually affect the way individual genes function, potentially turning on genes that increase risk of disease,” he noted.
But Toxic stress doesn’t have to be a done deal, Sood said.
“There are ways to decrease and even reverse the damage done,” he said.
Simple lifestyle changes such as physical exercise, a healthy diet and adequate sleep can help, Sood pointed out. Contemplative practices such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, and even prayer can also help to manage stress in the moment and reverse some of its negative health consequences.
“All of these lifestyle changes have been shown to reduce stress,” Sood said, adding that he also recommended “timeless virtues” such as gratitude and working to forgive old grudges.
Fortunately for Andujar, his cancer was found in time. He’s now cancer-free, and extremely grateful. He said he’s made changes in his life that ensure stress can no longer overtake him. And the one positive remnant of his cancer battle is a new perspective on life.
“I think it makes you a better person when you see the gates opening,” he said. “I now enjoy life, I stay in the moment. I won’t wait for tomorrow to do what I can today. I don’t have time for anger, hatred. Life is too short.”
ABC News Health invites anyone who feels overtaken by stress to join us for a one hour tweet chat today at 1 p.m., ET. Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News chief health and medical editor, will be leading a discussion on how stress impacts your life and what you can do about it.
Additional reporting by Liz Neporent