Whether it’s work, family, dealing with an illness or health condition, or other life events, we’ve all felt stress in our lives. Maybe you suffer from panic attacks, migraines, or chronic pain and wonder if they’ll have any lasting impact on your health. Maybe, during another sleepless night, you’ve gone to Dr. Google and asked, “Can too much stress kill me?” If your stress and anxiety are only causing you more anxiety about the possible long-term effects, you’re not alone.
So can stress or anxiety actually kill you?
“In the most literal sense, stress and anxiety will not kill you, although it might feel like it,” said Ashley Leeds, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Some folks feel physical symptoms including chest tightening, stomachaches, headaches, or just general pain and fatigue in the body. Long-term stress can lead to changes in mood, including symptoms of depression like change in sleep or appetite and loss of pleasure.”
And it’s the long-term effects we want to try to avoid.
“When we're stressed, the body stimulates the sympathetic nervous system to respond to the threat, whether it's a physical threat like tripping and falling, or something intangible like worrying about our finances,” said Shimmy Feintuch, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Often without our even being aware of it, our breathing will quicken, while our blood pressure and pulse will rise.”
“The body's Central Nervous System (CNS) releases stress hormones, which affect all body systems. While the body's stress response is designed to keep us alive and safe, there can be some adverse effects. Some examples of stress-related physical symptoms include headaches, irritability, an upset stomach, and loss of libido. Over time, chronic stress can have serious physical repercussions. Stress disorders can lead to cardiovascular issues, obesity, and dysfunction in most body systems.”
Dealing with the impact of chronic stress is hard because the source is a constant part of our lives and our bodies never receive a clear signal to return to non-stressed functioning. Always being in fight, flight, or freeze mode can disturb the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems. Some people may experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger, or irritability. Over time, continued strain on your body from stress may contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, including mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.
“When clients ask me if anxiety really has biological manifestations, I have a go-to answer,” said Victoria Goldenberg, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “I ask them to think about when President Obama first became president. After they get a mental picture of him, I ask them to describe him (politics aside). The usual answer is young, determined, bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed. Then I asked them to describe him eight years later. Gray hair and wrinkles (but they usually add the nice smile). That, I tell them, is stress manifesting biologically.”
“Stress and anxiety are different, but both can have long lasting effects on the mind and body; where stress comes from current circumstances, anxiety becomes wired in the mind from events which occurred in the past,” said Chloe Svolakos, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “With enough hormones surging from our brains into our bodies, our tissue and organs eventually can break down. Understanding your story, and what's going on is the very first step toward health and happiness!”
Everybody feels stressed or anxious at some point. For some people, their anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The symptoms can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school, work, and relationships. If this is the case, someone might have an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or a phobia-related disorder. Anxiety disorders are diagnosed by a mental health practitioner and are generally treated with psychotherapy, medication, or both. Whether you’re dealing with a stressful event or an anxiety disorder, there are ways to cope.
“Try to remember, that feeling-like-you’re-dying sensation during a panic attack is NOT going to be the thing that does it,” said Desirée Woehrle, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Especially if you carve out time for taking care of yourself and learning strategies to cope with whatever might be bringing these feelings up. Putting off addressing the issue may seem easier, but that avoidance may trigger worsening feelings and a longer recovery period. You can start to feel better with the smallest steps. Practice deep breathing, reach out to someone you trust, focus on something entertaining, and lastly, know this feeling will not last forever.”
If there’s one thing our community of therapists said over and over, it was that, especially with panic attacks, the feelings are temporary, and with a good coping strategy, the long-term effects of stress and anxiety could be avoided.
“One thing to keep in mind is that all feelings are temporary and these distressing feelings will pass with time,” said Ashley Leeds, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Self-care such as mental health days, exercise, healthy eating, and getting enough sleep are also simple ways to inhibit stress from piling up.”
Another great strategy for managing stress is deep breathing. This is something we’ve probably all heard, and if you’ve ever thought how will I remember to do a breathing exercise when I’m stressed or having a panic attack??? one of the best pieces of advice we can give is to make breathing exercises part of your routine before you’re super stressed (for other ways to create a proactive stress management practice, check out this post).
“You can evoke your relaxation response by breathing deep and slow,” said Brie Scolaro, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “The relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response, and is essential to counteracting problematic stress in your life. When you do the exercise, your metabolism decreases, your heart beats more slowly, your muscles relax, and your blood pressure decreases, as stated by the American Institute of Stress.” Here are the steps she suggests:
“While deep breathing hasn’t been the wonder pill that takes away all of my anxiety problems, it has helped me immensely in moving forward productively after feeling anxious, combatting my insomnia, and allowing me to stay grounded,” Brie said. “Start by practicing 5-10 minutes a day, gradually building up to 15-20 minute sessions each day over time. With just 4-5 breaths, you will instantly feel the difference, such as your heart rate and anxiety decreasing. To feel the longer-term benefits of deep breathing, stick with the activity a period of 8 or more weeks.”
If you’re having trouble navigating your stress and anxiety, therapy can help with grounding, mindfulness, and strengthening of the other systems overall. Cognitively, a therapist can help us look at the stories we tell ourselves that contribute to our long-term stress and anxiety (for tips on how to practice grounding techniques, check out this post).
“The time to learn to manage your stress is now!! I do a lot of stress reduction work with clients. Practicing specific mindfulness exercises can help, along with breath work. Most clients of mine leave therapy having learned how to better manage life's stressors,” said Shimmy.
Developing and strengthening our own coping skills is important, but therapy can uncover patterns in our thoughts and behaviors that feed into our symptoms. Addressing the core source of those patterns can help you get to the root of your experiences, cast off narratives that no longer serve you, and help you break the pattern moving forward. You deserve to be well and get the support you need, no matter what life throws at you.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.
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