So, now that you know the ins and outs of how stress works, and the different ways it might be affecting you in the near term, let’s examine what’s at stake in the long run – that is, what can happen to you if you don’t address your stress.
With the experience of continuous or repetitive stress over the years, the levels of cortisol and adrenaline in your bloodstream stay high and the impairments in physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning become more and more pronounced. The body begins to experience each stressor as an extra burden due to the side effects of the persistently high stress hormones, and irreversible physical damage to the brain and other vital organs (such as the heart and digestive system) sets in. The manifestations could be devastating.
Over the long term, people with higher stress levels have a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks, coronary artery disease, and strokes. This risk is particularly high if you tend to be excessively competitive, impatient, and hostile, and move and talk quickly (sometimes called “Type A Personality”). Research shows that of these characteristics, hostility is the most significant predictor of developing heart disease. The common stress response of eating comfort foods, with their accompanying fat and salt, further increases the risk.
High Blood Pressure
Also known as hypertension, this is a chronic disease that usually has no obvious symptoms. But it raises your risk of stroke, heart failure, kidney failure, and heart attacks. Recall that the release of adrenaline during stressful periods raises your blood pressure. It does so by narrowing your blood vessels (by causing blood vessel walls to constrict). So, frequently repeated or prolonged stress can lead to a permanent state of high blood pressure. Hypertension is very common in modern society and presents a serious medical problem because it is directly related to strokes, heart disease, hardening of the arteries and kidney failure.
Susceptibility to Infection
You’ve already read how chronic stress suppresses the immune system, making you more vulnerable to infections. Allergies, asthma, and autoimmune diseases (including arthritis and multiple sclerosis) may be exacerbated by stress. If you’re under lots of stress, the rate at which you recover from any illnesses will be slowed.
Acne, psoriasis, and eczema, which are themselves very stressful, have also been linked to constant, long-term stress.
If you’re thinking that stress is a dire problem, you’re right. It is. But the good news is that if you act now, you can avoid its long-term ill effects.
The Link between Stress and Medical Problems
The connection between your health and your stress level is undeniable. Take air traffic controllers, for example. They have one of the most stressful jobs possible, with continual responsibility for the lives of thousands of people. Unfortunately, people who work in this job are also five times more likely than the rest of us to suffer from high blood pressure (hypertension).