How Stress Makes You Sick (and What You Can Do About It)

It’s estimated that up to 90% of doctor’s visits are for conditions in which stress plays a role. Here's how stress makes you sick.

People all over the world are more stressed out than ever. In the West, stress-related or stress-induced illnesses like anxiety, panic disorders, chronic fatigue immune deficiency syndrome, obesity, heart disease and even cancer are rampant, and people who heal from these ailments typically find that radical stress-reduction is a major part of their recovery. Here’s why…

Scientifically, there are two types of stress: eustress and distress. Eustress is “good stress.” It’s the kind of stress you feel when your muscles are exercising at a new weight level, or when you’re about to meet someone interesting and important for the first time. Eustress is short-term and, usually, enjoyable or exciting.

Distress is exactly what it sounds like.


In today’s modern society, there are many things that cause our bodies, hearts and minds distress. And this distress is often long-term, ongoing or chronic, and not very pleasant at all.

And if it goes on too long, distress invariably leads to disease, and even death.

Stress 101

In primitive times, our biggest stressors were finding food and avoiding imminent death, and we evolved to have a “fight-or-flight” response to deal with threats like falling rocks or saber-toothed tigers. Today, we no longer worry so much about our immediate survival, but we still face lots of perceived threats that send off our fight-or-flight response all the time.

For example, when a large dog barks at you during your afternoon walk, your hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this alarm system tells your adrenal glands, located on top your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts your energy. Your breathing gets shallower and faster, which triggers the release of cortisol.

Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, triggers the release of sugars (glucose/glycogen) into the bloodstream, and enhances your brain’s use of that glucose so you can think more clearly, and see, hear and smell more acutely.

Cortisol also shuts down functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. Cortisol lowers immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system, the detoxification system, and most growth and healing processes so that as much of your energy as possible can be redirected towards your immediate survival.

This complex natural protection system also deeply affects the regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.

In the short-term, the fight-or-flight response can save your life. In the long-term, it can kill you. Humans were built to handle the acute affects to the body that come from a few life-threatening situations spaced out over a lifetime, but we were not made to handle the chronic, ongoing stress that occurs from our modern lifestyle.

Today, everything from high-pressured jobs to loneliness to busy traffic can keep the body in a constant state of perceived threat and distress.

When the stressors in life are always present, leaving you feeling constantly tense, on-edge and nervous, your fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on all the time. Constantly living in a state of high cortisol and adrenaline wears down your body and causes you to become ill, either physically or emotionally. In fact, the CDC estimates that up to 90% of doctor’s visits are for conditions in which stress plays a role!

How Stress Makes You Sick

If chronic stress goes on for too long, or gets too bad, your body and mind can become what is technically known as “hypervigilant,” or always on alert. A part of your brain called the amygdala (which is responsible for learning and anticipating things that are dangerous to you) gets so accustomed to being under constant attack, that it begins to tell your body to act as if it is always under threat, and your mind to believe that every circumstance is worse than it really is.

Flooded with stress hormones all the time, you have trouble unwinding and sleeping. This only makes things worse as sleep deprivation adds to the stress on your system. You literally can’t relax, mentally or physically, and become increasingly fidgety, suspicious, and worried over everything.

Little things that never bothered you before begin to bother you a lot, and you might have trouble letting go of them.

Loud or repetitive noises and crowds become particularly irritating. Anxiety, and even panic, can become commonplace. You become pessimistic, oversensitive and feel a bit overwhelmed by life.

But if the effects of chronic distress on your psyche and spirit weren’t enough, the long-term activation of the stress-response system—and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones—keeps your body’s healing, digestive, reproductive, detoxification and growth processes sluggish and underperforming.

In addition to a cortisol-induced, system-wide slow-down, your heart rate and blood pressure remain irregular, and your breathing stays shallow, causing your body to live in a state of chronic hypoxia where your body and brain don’t get enough oxygen or expel enough carbon dioxide to function properly.

This combination of long-term oxygen deprivation and poor-functioning body systems puts you at significantly increased risk of numerous health problems, including:

  • Chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, premature aging
  • Adrenal fatigue, thyroid imbalances, chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Heart disease and atherosclerosis
  • Digestive problems, leaky gut syndrome, malnutrition, food sensitivities
  • Imbalances in estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, loss of libido, infertility
  • Depression
  • Obesity, diabetes, emotional eating
  • Memory impairment and “brain fog”
  • Worsening of skin conditions, such as eczema or acne
  • Autoimmune disease

It’s pretty safe to say that most of today’s modern health epidemics are caused or exacerbated by the chronic stress of modern living.

Distress = Death

In Japan, where hard work and self-sacrifice are considered the cornerstone of Japan’s post-war economic miracle, it is normal to work 60 or more hours a week, usually without any overtime pay.

Because of peer pressure to keep up with co-workers and out-do competing companies, hundreds of thousand of Japanese workers are caught up in a whirlwind of psychological pressure that forces them to work at a frenzied pace.

But people cannot work for ten or twelve hours a day, six and seven days a week, year after year, without suffering physically as well as mentally. After years of such intense overworking, most people find that they cannot rest even when they do take time off. They are so wound up that not working leaves them disoriented and, ironically, stressed out. In such an environment, a phenomenon called karoshi, or “death by overwork” has become extremely common.

Karoshi is when an employee suddenly dies at work from heart attack or stroke. It is estimated that over 10,000 people die of karoshi in Japan every year—most of them between ages 30-45, and otherwise healthy.

Suicide due to work-related depression is also common. So common, in fact, that the Japanese government has set up a compensation program for families who lose loved ones to overwork.

But sudden death or suicide due to occupational stress is not limited to Japan. In South Korea, it is known as gwarosa, and in China it is called guolaosi. When I lived in Seoul in 1996, the average Korean worked 6 days a week, 10 hours a day, and kids went to some type of school 364 days a year. 

Drinking and smoking to cope were rampant, and cirrosis of the liver from alcoholism remains a major public health issue there.

Recently, the Foxconn factory in China (that builds computers and iPhones, among other products) faced an alarming spate of worker suicides that brought Apple, HP and other companies under a lot of fire. Foxconn runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and tens of thousands of workers live at the plants, away from their families, putting in 12 hour shifts.

But instead of changing working conditions, they installed safety nets in front of the factory windows.

Putting profit over people has grave costs.

It happens here too, as more and more American workers are forced to take second and even third jobs to make ends meet, or feel pressured to work overtime for free or give up vacations and weekend time to remain competitive at work.

Usually we recognize the first signs of a dangerous level of stress as burnout, but it can and does progress to sudden death by cardiac arrest or stroke quite easily.

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Americans Under Fire

In America, signs of stress and burnout are all around us. Everyone seems overwhelmed, over-scheduled, overstimulated, and lacking the resources to cope with it all. Americans take more antidepressants—and increasingly antipsychotics—than any other country.

We also use all kinds of escapism and self-medication (like too much TV,  Facebook, alcohol, marijuana, shopping, sugar binges, sex, etc.) to deal with our stress.

Some of the things we find the most distressing include:

Emotional stressors

  • Toxic people and situations that involve family, friends or coworkers.
  • Financial stress from loss of employment, foreclosure, medical bills, etc.
  • Dealing with serious illness and long-term caregiving in the family, including dementia, autism, and the like.
  • Pressure to produce more, work more, get more done, and schedule more into your day.
  • Lack of regular time to socialize and relax with friends and family, or to spend contemplative time alone.
  • Lack of a sense of purpose or passion in life.
  • Lack of face to face, intimate relationships with others; loneliness; fear of dealing with other people outside of your “circle.”
  • Traffic; noise pollution; being at the constant beck and call of pinging digital devices.

Physical stressors

  • Processed food diets low in nutrition and high in sugar, polyunsaturated yellow seed oils and trans-fats, and chemical additives.
  • Insomnia; lack of sleep or poor sleep quality; sleep apnea.
  • Lack of exercise or even regular physical activity, like climbing stairs.
  • Viruses, mold exposure, candida overgrowth and other biological toxins.
  • An inadequate amount of time outdoors, especially in the sun.
  • Constant assault from toxic chemical pollutants in our air, drinking water, soil, and food, including chlorine, fluoride, pesticides, pharmaceutical drugs, heavy metals, smog, GMOs, etc.
  • Constant assault from chemical toxins in our everyday products, like household cleaners and detergents, shampoo, deodorant, body lotion, perfume, etc.
  • EMFs, radio, cellular and microwave frequencies bouncing around everywhere, and too much “screen time.”

It seems like stressors to our bodies, minds and souls are coming at us from all angles! Most people I know are wrestling with several physical and emotional stressors at the same time. How much can one spirit and one body take?!?! No wonder millions of people are sick, tired and depressed.

We’ve allowed a society to develop that is almost in direct opposition to what makes human beings healthy and happy. 

How can this possibly be sustainable?

Losing Tolerance for What Kills Us is the First Step

My friend Anna has an amazing saying that I quote often:

“We get what we are willing to tolerate—not what we deserve, not what we were born into, not what fate brings us. If we are willing to endure a lousy work environment, or bad relationships, or a schedule that is too busy for exercise, then that is what we will get. We get what we are willing to tolerate.”

The first step in reclaiming our lives—and our society—from the stress that is literally killing us is to simply quit tolerating it. 

Here are some ideas for turning the above list of stressors upside down:

Emotional stress relievers

  • Don’t put up with toxic people and situations. Find the strength to say goodbye to anything or anyone that makes your life unnecessarily hard. Life is too short to tolerate abuse of any kind, even from family.
  • Prioritize debt payment and simple living in your family budget. Downsize and dump all the material stuff that clutters your home, occupies your precious, limited headspace, and sucks money out of your wallet. Believe it or not, it is stressful to have a lot of stuff to mentally keep track of, maintain and move from place to place.
  • Don’t tolerate social injustice, environmental degradation or government corruption. Choose a cause that matters to you and get involved with a local organization fighting for what you believe in. Doing something to make a difference can greatly relieve your sense of stressed-out powerlessness. Plus you’ll meet some great, like-minded people.
  • To the best of your ability, surround yourself with a “village” of friends, neighbors and family who are mutually supportive of each other, and help each other with child care, illness, financial strain and other challenges that are more easily met together than alone.
  • Let go of the pressure to produce more, work more, get more done, and schedule more into your day. There will always be more work to do. Always. You will never do all the work. When you are on your death bed (which could happen tomorrow), will you look back over your life and say, “Gee, I wish I worked more”? I didn’t think so.
  • Insist upon a little time every single day to socialize and relax with friends and family, or to spend contemplative time alone. If this means less “screen time,” or waiting a day to answer an email or clean the bathroom, so be it. You won’t regret it.
  • Find something to do that gives you a sense of passion or purpose in life, even if you can only do it on the weekends.
  • Find a creative outlet or learn a new skill. Practice it a little every day. Nothing is more enlivening than being creatively engaged.
  • Turn off the TV, computer, smartphone and iPad, and spend some uninterrupted face time with others. As an added bonus, you can get a break from the stress of constantly being at the beck and call of all your beeping gadgets. Give yourself and your family one day a week totally unplugged. You will be amazed at how it makes you feel.

Physical stress relievers

  • Improve your diet and take back your health by gradually eliminating all processed food, refined sugar, polyunsaturated oils and trans-fats, and chemical additives. This obviously involves cooking a lot more from scratch, which has the added benefits of saving you money and providing you with an easy way to spend more face time with family and friends.
  • Humans were made to move—a lot. Do everything possible to move your body more. Park further away from the store, take the stairs instead of the elevator, bike to work. If you can take up walking, bicycling, soccer, dancing, or some other form of exercise that is more enjoyable and social than boring repetitions at the gym, even better.
  • Try to spend at least a half hour outside in the sun every day. When you can, do your socializing and exercise outside. Be sure to get your vitamin D by exposing as much skin to the sun as you can (without sunblock!) for at least 10 minutes. Go barefoot on the grass, dirt, or sand as often as possible. It is very grounding.
  • Filter your water for chlorine and fluoride, buy or grow organic food, support clean, green energy, and fight for vigilant enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Coal, chemical and cement plants are some of the biggest sources of mercury, dioxin and other lethal toxins in the air, water and food supply, and they are barely regulated at all. This must change.
  • Carefully consider your dental and medical choices to avoid heavy metals, BPA, toxins, and pharmaceutical drugs. Can your health condition be improved or even eliminated with exercise and an allergen-free, nutrient-dense, whole food diet?
  • Eliminate mainstream household cleaners and detergents, shampoo, deodorant, body lotion, perfumes, etc. from your home and your life. Buy or make non-toxic alternatives.
  • Minimize your exposure to EMFs, radio, cellular and microwave frequencies by reducing your “screen time,” getting rid or reducing the use of your microwave, unplugging your WiFi and other media appliances at night, using a bluetooth device, and leaving your cell phone in another room while you sleep. This will also save you energy and money.

A neighbor of mine recently confessed that she cancelled her Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as her cable TV account. While some of us might gasp horrified at the notion of unplugging entirely, she said it was the best thing she ever did, because now she hangs out with friends for entertainment or simply goes somewhere interesting alone.

Remember when we all used to do that? 

As a result of trading her screen time for face time, she said she has easily and naturally met lots of new, interesting people, found an exciting new job, and even started dating someone she really likes who shares her real-time interests. She said none of that was really very possible or enjoyable with online social networks, job boards or e-dating services.

And by turning off the screens and the constant beeps for attention, she’s also found significantly more time for reading, hobbies, and several projects she’s been putting off for years.

I don’t know about you, but I’m inspired!

I will start by listing out my emotional and physical stressors and putting them in order of difficulty to resolve. I think if I worked on alleviating one emotional stressor and one physical stressor in my life per month (on average), I could make great strides on not only reducing my stress and improving my health, but also making life more enjoyable and meaningful.

When I am healthy and take regular care of my stress, I am more self-sustaining, and better able to contribute to the well-being of my family and my community.

And isn’t that what matters most?

How is stress affecting your life? What physical and emotional stressors can you alleviate now?

This is Part 1 in the Stress and Sustainability series.

Part 2 – Eliminate Stress, Anxiety and Panic in 57 Seconds




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