While stress is a natural response to perceived danger, chronic stress can lead to physical and mental health complications and early death.

Stress is a natural response to new, challenging, or threatening situations. Experiencing stress is part of being alive, but it can become overwhelming, causing daily dysfunction and even leading to serious health complications.

Stress itself is not a problem, but it becomes a problem when it’s left to run rampant and starts holding you back from experiencing your full potential.

For example, the stress of taking a test can help motivate a person to study, show up on time, and work their hardest to succeed. But if stress isn’t something you know how to handle, cope with, or control, it can work in the opposite way.

In the above example, pre-test stress may escalate into full-blown test anxiety and limit your ability to study, arrive on time, and finish the task.

Stress is a response that is supposed to peak and resolve. It is not supposed to go on endlessly (i.e., after the test, the feelings of test stress should resolve).

If your stress response continues after the fact, and if it goes unmanaged (i.e., becomes chronic), it can lead to mental and physical health problems, including anxiety and depression, heart disease, and even death.

Stress affects every part of the body, and this is why it’s felt physically and mentally.

According to the American Psychological Association, short-term stress affects all systems including:

  • Musculoskeletal (ie., muscle tightening and tension)
  • Respiratory (ie., rapid breathing or shallow breathing)
  • Cardiovascular(ie., heart race increase, blood pressure increase)
  • Endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive: stress hormone release, flight or fight response kicks into gear

These natural responses are designed to peak and drop. When they don’t, diseases can occur in relation to the overstimulation of the stress response.

While short-term stress can enhance the immune system’s response, it’s well known that chronic stress puts a major strain on the immune system. Chronic stress also creates structural brain changes that impact functioning.

A 2021 research review demonstrated the following diseases and illnesses are directly associated with chronic stress:

Chronic stress is associated with the following health conditions:

  • heart disease and dysfunction (including arrhythmia and heart attack)
  • digestive disorders
  • memory disorders
  • diabetes
  • cancer (particularly breast tumor development)

Many people may look at the impact of stress on health and quality of life and wonder, is stress the number one killer? As it’s directly associated with the six leading causes of death, stress can be called a silent killer.

A 2021 study shows that physical and mental stressors can lead to sudden cardiac death (SCD). So stress can cause sudden death by a heart attack, but it can contribute to prolonged health complications, like substance use disorder, leading to early death.

For example, if a person learns to cope with stress by using drugs or alcohol, this also increases the risk of associated health complications and early death. Stress is a risk factor in substance use disorders.

Work-related stress is a direct factor in around 120,000 people’s deaths every year. As it’s unlikely for “stress” to be listed as the cause of death, though, the real number may be much higher if we were to peel back causes behind, for example, SCD.

Another study, published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, shows a nearly 50 percent increased risk of early death due to chronic stress and depression compared to lower levels of stress and depression.

The following leading causes of death are linked in some way to how stress manifests into illness and worsens symptoms of chronic conditions.

The six leading causes of death in the U.S. that are impacted by emotional stress are:

  • heart disease
  • cancer
  • lung ailments and respiratory disorder
  • accidental injuries
  • cirrhosis of the liver
  • suicide

Temporary or short-term stress is not a bad thing. It’s a natural and healthy response to a perceived threat. No matter the cause, stress affects every system that keeps your body and brain functioning.

So when stress doesn’t resolve, it can create physical and mental health problems, including structural changes to your brain and dysfunction in the immune system.

Chronic stress is not good for the body. It’s a known risk factor for a range of illnesses and diseases including psychiatric illnesses, heart disease, diabetes, and even cancerous tumor development.

It’s also associated with early death, either by sudden death due to cardiac arrest, heart attack, or prolonged health issues that create wear and tear on your body and mind. Chronic stress can also lead to accidental injury and an increased risk of suicide.

Stress does not cause death, but it directly contributes to sudden and early death. There are ways you can learn to manage stress on your own, or you can speak to a mental health professional for guidance. Help is always available.

Alcántara C, et al. (2015). Concurrent stress and depressive symptoms increase risk of myocardial infarction or death. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.114.001180

Goh J, et al. (2016). The relationship between workplace stressors and mortality and health costs in the United States. https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/publications/relationship-between-workplace-stressors-mortality-health-costs-united

Khoury L, et al. (2010). Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and posttraumatic stress disorder in an urban civilian population. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.20751.

Kruk J. (2012). Self-reported psychological stress and the risk of breast cancer: A case-control study. https://doi.org/10.3109/10253890.2011.606340.

Oakman J, et al. (2020). A rapid review of mental and physical health effects of working at home: how do we optimise health? https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-020-09875-z

Salleh MR. (2008). Life event, stress and illness. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3341916.

Stress effects on the body. (2018). https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body

Yaribeygi H, et al. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579396/