In Depth


Stress - we’ve all experienced it at one time or another. Whether it be from an upcoming deadline at work or responsibilities at home, it can seem ever present. When we are in danger, our body’s “fight or flight” reaction to stress can be helpful, giving us the strength and speed that we may need to escape a dangerous situation. However, when it keeps up, it can increase your risk of heart disease, cancer, obesity and a host of other health problems.

Your body’s response to stress

According to the National Institutes of Health, a stressful situation triggers a chemical signal from the brain that quickly sends stress hormones throughout the bloodstream, keeping the body alert and ready to escape danger. When the situation ends, the body stops releasing hormones and returns to normal. When stress does not let up however, those same chemical signals continuously flood the bloodstream. Over the long-term these hormones can have a detrimental effect on your health.

What is considered stress

Beyond differences in our genetic make-up, our own environment and our place in society can often increase our stress level. A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health suggests that exposure to racial and ethnic discrimination has been shown to have a long-term effect on health. Other stresses may stem from more serious events such as hate crime and economic hardships.

Women may also experience more stress than men. The American Medical Women’s Association notes that while men face more immediate job-related hazards, women are more susceptible to stress-induced illness. Women often find themselves taking on the roll of caretaker and are less likely to hold positions of power, making them unable to control much of the environment around them. The more responsibilities and the less power one has over circumstances in their everyday life, the heavier the stress load.

How do you handle stress?

Not everyone handles stressful situations the same way. The body’s response to stress can vary from person to person partially due to heredity and other biological differences. Some people may fail to have a strong enough response to stress while others may over respond to minor stressors.

While stress is difficult and at times impossible to eliminate, how we react to it makes a difference. People who tend to be very ambitious, competitive and show a constant preoccupation with deadlines are sometimes characterized as having a “type A” personality. People who tend to approach things in a more laid back manner are said to have a “type B” personality.

Although individual triggers to stress can vary, the effects on the body are the same. People who react to stress with “type A” personalities may have a greater chance of heart disease than those with “type B.” Even worse, people who exhibit the same driven work-a-holic characteristics as “type A”, but who react to stressors with great anger, cynicism, mistrust, or hostility are even more at risk for a heart-related illness. These people are referred to as having a “type D” personality.

According to the American Heart Association, mental stress can trigger a lack of blood flow to the heart and increase the risk of death in people with heart disease.

Stress not only affects the heart adversely but also raises blood pressure and over a long period of time can leadto what is called a stress-related disorder. Chronic stress can prevent the body from turning off its “fight or flight” responses. The constant anxiety can cause a lack of motivation, appetite, difficulty sleeping, and physical problems such as an increased risk of gaining abdominal fat.

There is no way to completely eliminate stress. However, by setting short-term goals to improve your lifestyle and health you will gain more of the physical and emotional strength needed to cope with it.

For more information about the effects of stress on the body, relaxation techniques, and tips to reduce stress visit the National Institutes of Health website at or The American Medical Women’s Association at and click on health topics.


Signs that you may be under an unhealthy amount of stress include:

  • Nervousness or anxiety

  • Depression and sadness

  • Irritability

  • Frequent frustration

  • Forgetfulness and poor concentration

  • Indecisiveness

  • Insomnia

  • Negative thoughts

  • Back pain and headaches

  • Pounding heart

  • Loss of appetite

  • Hives or skin rashes

  • Stomach pains