Everyone knows that chronic stress is bad. But just how bad can it be? Tallying the negative effects of long-term chronic stress is quite an eye-opener. Prolonged stress can not only shorten your life, but also seriously erode the quality of the life you live. Here’s how.

Prolonged stress leads to memory loss.

When stress is sustained over a long period, such as remaining in a difficult marriage or working for an intolerable boss, the result is memory impairment caused by inflammation and the immune system. Ohio State University researchers found a relationship between prolonged stress and short-term memory in a study involving mice. The study focused on the hippocampus, the body’s hub of emotional response and memory.

Chronic stress promotes spread of cancer through the lymphatic system.

Research by Australian scientists published in Nature Communications finds that stress hormones ramp up the lymphatic system, acting as a fertilizer to promote the spread of cancer in mice. According to the researchers, chronic stress both increases the number of lymphatic vessels draining from a tumor and increases the flow in existing vessels.

By using propranolol, a beta-blocker drug, scientists were able to block the action of the stress hormone adrenaline in mice. The drug stopped stress hormones from remodeling lymph vessels in the tumor and reduced the risk of cancer spreading through the lymph nodes.

The team is now involved in a pilot study of women with breast cancer to see if treatment with propranolol can reduce the risk of tumors spreading to other parts of the body.

Your face shows the effects of stress by aging more quickly.

Look no further than your face to see the damage stress can do:

  • It shows up in dark circles and bags under your eyes. That’s because the under-eye capillaries are fragile and break up under stress. Waking up to puffy eyes is a result of stress causing fluid to pool below the eyes.
  • Wrinkles appear in lines between the eyes, on the forehead, around the mouth and under the eyes.
  • Itching and hives are the result of inflammation from stress.
  • Teeth grinding is another sign of stress.
  • Hair loss can result from stress.
  • Stress also causes adult acne.
  • Skin takes on a dull, dry appearance. Chronic stress triggers a constant flow of cortisol, which, in turn, may cause a dip in estrogen. This can then result in a dull and dry appearance in the skin.

Changes in personality have been linked to long-term workplace stress.

New research from the London School of Economics and Political Science reveals that being stressed out at work can lead to changes in personality over time. The research, published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, found that workers who felt excessive stress in the workplace reported higher levels of neuroticism. They became more worried and irritable, and less extroverted. They also showed more signs of shyness and spoke less often. On the other hand, workers who said they had greater control over their jobs reported increases in such desirable personality traits as warmth, cooperation, creativity and imagination.

Loss of a partner increases stress and may cause heart attacks.

Losing a loved one is an understandably stressful event. But the aftereffects of grief can be personally devastating, with sustained stress levels increasing the risk of developing an irregular heartbeat. The risk is greatest in the first 12 months after the loss. The condition, called atrial fibrillation, further increases the chances of having heart failure or a stroke, both potentially fatal.

The research was conducted by Aarhus University in Denmark and published in the UK medical journal Open Heart. Scientists found that the risk was heightened when the partner’s death was unexpected. Atrial fibrillation, affecting about one million people in the UK, becomes more common as the person gets older. It affects about seven out of 100 people over the age of 65.

Chronic stress increases weight gain.

The culprit is betatrophin, a protein that blocks an enzyme, adipose triglyceride lipase, that breaks down body fat. Chronic stress stimulates the production of betatrophin in the body, according to researchers at the University of Florida Health. Their results provide experimental evidence that long-term stress makes it harder to break down body fat.

Prolonged stress can lead to chronic fatigue syndrome.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that abnormally low concentrations of the hormone cortisol in the morning could correlate with more severe fatigue in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

A debilitating, complex disorder, CFS doesn’t improve with bed rest and may get worse with mental or physical activity. The CDC researchers found that people with CFS have reduced output of cortisol overall during the first hour after they wake up — one of the body’s most stressful times. While the exact cause of CFS hasn’t been identified, it’s believed to be related to an imbalance in the interactions of normal working systems in the body that help manage stress.

Chronic stress increases risk for cardiovascular events, such as heart attack and stroke.

A study conducted by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, examining brain scans for 293 patients, found that higher activity levels in the brain’s stress center, the amygdala, were associated with arterial inflammation — a high predictor of heart attack and stroke. The study results point to the conclusion that stress, which is known to be not only the result of adversity, may also be an important cause of disease.

Depression, anxiety, digestive and sleep problems may result from long-term stress.

The list of problems associated with or believed to be caused by chronic stress continues to grow as researchers delve more into the effects of prolonged stress. In addition to an increased risk for heart attack, stroke, memory loss, weight gain, chronic fatigue syndrome, cancer, quicker aging and personality changes, long-term stress may also induce or exacerbate depression and anxiety-related disorders, as well as digestive and sleep problems.

If you have a highly-stressed life or have been diagnosed with chronic stress, it’s important to do something about it. Change your habits. Get professional help to manage stress so that it doesn’t overwhelm you and wreak havoc on your life. Some short-term behavioral and lifestyle changes can make all the difference in the quality and length of your life.

Stressed man photo available from Shutterstock