Dying from stress is unlikely, though it may be possible. Here’s how stress can affect your health, along with tips to help you manage it.
Stress can feel mentally and physically overwhelming at times, especially if you’ve been stressed out for a while.
But can stress actually kill you? In most cases, the short answer is no.
Yet the long-term effects of stress may depend on how much stress your body can handle and what you do to cope.
We all feel stressed now and then, some of us more often than others — and that’s OK.
After all, stress is a natural part of life. Sometimes, it’s even necessary for our growth and survival.
“Stress is what keeps us alive,” says Janine Ilsley, a licensed master social worker and a therapist with Cobb Psychotherapy in New York City.
Still, there’s a distinct difference between “healthy” stress and “unhealthy” stress.
Healthy stress can often help us grow and thrive, whereas unhealthy stress may refer to unmanaged stress, which can be detrimental to our health and well-being.
Regardless of the stressors we face, Ilsley says we can learn to adapt to the ever-changing and challenging conditions we’re presented with.
“The mind and the body are intimately and intricately connected,” Ilsley says. “When we reclaim our bodies, we have the power to rearrange and reorganize its system to allow us to thrive,” Ilsley says.
According to Jessica Stern, PhD, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at NYU Langone Healthnotes, stress may have the following effects on the body:
- increased chronic pain
- weakened immune system
- agitated gastrointestinal (GI) functioning
In the short term, stress may also lead to:
Stress can also indirectly impact your health. For instance, stress may cause you to:
- accidentally skip meals
- eat fewer balanced meals
- refrain from scheduling or maintaining important health appointments
- avoid healthy habits and maintenance routines
For the average person, stress is unlikely to result in death.
But stress can be dangerous or deadly if left unmanaged or untreated for a long time, especially if you live with particular health conditions. That’s why healthy stress management is key to promoting health and longevity.
According to Stern, stress may cause certain health conditions that could lead to death if left unchecked over time. These include:
- decreased immune functioning
- poor cardiovascular health
- high blood pressure
- sleep disturbances
- mixing drugs or alcohol with other medications
- engaging in dangerous behaviors while under the influence
“For those who use tobacco as a stress management behavior, smoking can lead to many health concerns that can be fatal,” Stern says.
Depending on an individual’s circumstances and the state of their physical health, stress may result in death.
For instance, a 2017 study suggests that severe mental stress could lead to sudden death from heart disease or cardiovascular issues.
In addition, a 2021 study shows that physical and psychological stressors can lead to sudden cardiac death (SCD).
“For individuals with unstable and/or unmanaged cardiovascular disease, stress can lead to a heart attack,” Stern says.
“While there are a number of ‘red flags’ alerting the direction toward declining health, we can be experiencing unconscious stress in the body without any conscious awareness of its presence,” Ilsley says.
The following physical signs may indicate that stress is negatively impacting your health:
- increased tension (e.g., jaw clenching)
- increased pain (e.g., migraine headaches or back pain)
- increased soreness (e.g., chronic neck, back, or shoulder pain)
- low energy
- difficulty concentrating
- increased blood pressure or heart rate
- difficulty breathing
- random or sudden changes in appetite
In addition, a 2017 study suggests that people who live and work in stressful environments are more prone to the negative health effects of stress over time. But the long-term effects of stress may also vary depending on factors like severity and duration.
Other long-term health effects of stress may include:
- poor impulse control
- poor emotional regulation
- frequent colds and infections
- blood sugar imbalances
- low sex drive
- relationship challenges
- sleep issues or insomnia
- digestive issues (e.g., constipation, diarrhea, bloating, gas, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcerative colitis)
- adrenal fatigue and other conditions related to hormonal imbalances
Everyone experiences stress differently. How stress affects your physical and mental health may depend on how well you manage it.
Stern offered some suggestions to get ahead of the damaging effects of stress:
- Ask for help to lighten your load.
- Seek support, such as from friends, family, colleagues, community, or health professionals.
- If you can, let go of responsibilities, activities, and tasks you find draining.
- Rest and take breaks.
- Do things that bring you joy.
- If you are able, spend time outside.
- Consider exercising more often.
- If it comes easily, get better sleep.
- Set better boundaries.
- Assemble a healthcare team to help ensure your needs are being met.
- Check in with yourself about how you want to live your life and aim to align with that goal.
In addition, Ilsley recommends the following stress-reducing mindfulness tips:
- build more positive relationships
- play music
- eat an anti-inflammatory diet
- engage in a mind-body practice
- practice yoga sequences that release head, neck, jaw, and shoulder tension
Ilsley suggests taking regular “stress inventories” as time goes on by asking yourself the following questions:
- What does stress mean to me?
- What does being “stress-free” look and feel like?
- How is stress currently showing up in my daily life?
- How is stress being expressed in my body?
Stress is unlikely to be fatal for most people, but prolonged exposure to stress can lead to mental and physical health problems, including death in severe cases.
But dying from stress is unusual and is likely the result of a heart attack or another cardiovascular issue.
If you’ve noticed a decline in your well-being due to increased, prolonged stress, you might consider talking with a therapist or consulting a medical professional for more guidance.
Seeking help and trying different coping strategies for reducing your stress load can help you live a happier, healthier life.