Physical Illnesses & a Surprising Risk Factor Related to Stress

A silent killer, stress can cause a lot of diseases. A few may surprise you! I was reminded of this and the steps I’d taken to lower my own stressors by a chance conversation with Sherry Nelson, a delightful lady I met online. She seemed to have a good handle on managing her own stress while performing a highly stressful occupation.  This is such an important part of my own self-care; I’d be remiss if I didn’t send this out into the world!

Also, recently a 59-year-old, close friend who had a very stressful job, led a self-imposed, socially isolated life and had a strong family history of diabetes suffered left sided heart-failure, a brain stem stroke and was diagnosed with diabetes when he was treated for this trifecta of horrors in the hospital. The fact that he survived surprised the doctors and nurses involved in his care.

Stress affects people and other creatures everywhere in the world. Researchers say that stress plays a crucial part in up to 75% to 90% of diseases in humans and a recent study, conducted by Nancy A. Dreschel of Pennsylvania State University, found that in dogs, fear and anxiety were linked to decreased lifespan and some poor health conditions. 

Stress is a Killer
As a nurse working in hospice and palliative care, years ago I had begun to notice a commonality between younger patients (20-65 years of age) with early unresolved life experiences (intruding on present time) and those who led chronically stressful lives, such as policemen and executives, with certain diseases and the way they presented. I had not done any prior reading to back up my theories, but since there were repeated patterns, I couldn’t help but notice.

I also noticed among the generation before me, female relatives lived longer than their spouses by an average of 14 years, even if they were smokers, were beleaguered by rocky marriages and raising a family. The chief difference I noticed was that these women were successful housewives while their husbands held down successful, but known to be stressful jobs outside the home or were self-employed. I’ve read the gap is now closing between male and female life expectancies due to more women smoking and working outside the home.

Below are some diseases that are strongly linked to stress:

Stress can worsen the symptoms of asthma. Evidence suggests that the chronic stress of a parent might even increase the risk of developing asthma in the case of their children.

Auto-Immune Diseases
Multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus are a few. A Harvard study found a higher incidence of autoimmune diseases among people who were previously diagnosed with stress-related disorders.

Chronic Pain
Certain conditions of chronic pain like lower back pain can be caused or triggered when the body muscles are tensed up. Many chronic lower back pains are associated with stress.

Common Cold and Other Viruses
Stress can weaken our immune system, making us more susceptible to infectious diseases, such as the common cold, influenza, herpes II.

Depression/Mental Illnesses

Stress worsens the condition of diabetes in two ways: it increases the likeliness of poor self-care, such as unhealthy eating and excessive drinking. Secondly, stress directly causes an increase in the glucose levels of people suffering from adult-onset diabetes.

Gastrointestinal Disease
A few of these diseases are inflammatory bowel conditions, irritable bowel syndrome, gastroesophageal reflux, diarrhea, constipation, and discomfort.

Heart Diseases
Hypertension, high cholesterol levels, heart failure, and others too numerous to list.

Migraine and Headaches
Our bodies react to different stressful events by releasing chemicals that can cause physical changes in the blood vessels. This can cause migraine and severe headaches.

Stress produces higher levels of the cortisol hormone that seems to increase the fat content that gets deposited in the abdomen.

Premature Death
According to a study it was found that elderly caregivers who were looking after their spouses and were dealing with a great amount of stress had a 63% higher rate of death than those of their age who were not caregivers.

Risk Factors Affecting Stress
You know all the risk factors…obesity, smoking, indulging in legal and illegal drugs and alcohol, a sedentary lifestyle, etc. But would it surprise you to know that for males early retirement can cause a type of stress? What???

Early Retirement

Early retirement, before the age of 62, has been associated with higher mortality risk in certain instances. A study of Shell Oil employees found that those who retired at 55 and lived to be 65 died 37% sooner than those that retire at 65. And in general, people who retire at 55 are 89% more likely to die within 10 years than those that retire at 65.

Social Security has noted this. Men who retire at 62 have a 20% higher likelihood of death than the general population but retiring early for women causes no increase in mortality rates.

Groups studied of those who retired at 65 and found that lower-status workers were more likely to die within 3 years of retirement. Higher status workers lasted longer, averaging 4 to5 years after retirement. A larger percentage of those who retire at 65 are college-educated than those who retire at 62.

Generally, studies have found that the lower the income and educational level, the higher the retirees’ mortality rate. This difference can be attributed to leisure time activities after retirement and access to health care.

Reducing Stress
You’ve heard this all before…meditate, take up a hobby, exercise, maintain a healthy weight, express your feelings, do some journaling, find a less stressful occupation, so I won’t talk about it here, though it deserves repeating.

For most of us, quitting our jobs is not an option; so, let’s take that one off the table right now.  I’ve always said, “stress is stress”, whether you’re flipping burgers or performing brain surgery. We all internalize stress pretty much the same. Worry about bills causes the same amount of stress in someone with a $500 debt on a $250 a week job as it does in a person with a $5,000 debt and a $2500 a week income. Another curious fact I’ve noticed is that most peoples’ debts rise along with their income.

For me, I began with identifying what precisely caused me to be stressed, then eliminate that from my life. Working too many hours? Adjust your budget and try to work fewer. Certain people outside of work raise your blood pressure? Cut them out of your life. Sounds cold, especially if it’s a relative. But this is an us or them type of decision. It can impact your health and longevity. Stop keeping up with news that doesn’t directly impact your life. So much of news is predicated on “what-ifs” and not news at all. Turn off the TV. Go find something else, like visiting a friend, to occupy your time.

With work, realize there will always be pressures associated with your line of work and some just in general, such as incompetent, demanding bosses, unrelenting deadlines, customer or patient demands. Learn to take things in stride and be sure to do some things that are pleasurable to you in your off time. Take some “stay-cations” where you just hang around your house for a week or more (not catching up on things, unless this is something that relaxes you).

Make sure you’re chasing your own dreams and not someone else’s. Examples are: trying to live up to parent’s expectations; or in the case of one spouse working in a family business to achieve someone else’s dreams they’re not particularly enthused about. Seek your own happiness. Others will adjust.

Being guardian to dogs and cats is a big part of my de-stressing program. It’s been shown that just stroking the fur of a pet can lower your blood pressure. Just be sure that if you adopt a furry friend that you have the time available to take care of them properly. Having a lonely pet at home who becomes stressed himself and might indulge in unwanted behaviors, such as separation anxiety or soiling in the house...that is not going to alleviate anyone’s stress! 

Always ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” when stressing about “what ifs” or “maybes”. Most of the things we worry about never come to pass. One should never worry. In fact, self-talk, being so powerful, you should re-phrase your state as “being concerned about” a situation that is on the horizon. Do as much damage control as is reasonable to avoid the outcome you’re stressing about, then just let it go. Realize you are not all-powerful or omnipotent and don’t control the Universe. Some things are beyond your control. Recognize what those things are.  Once you’ve done your best, you just need to let it go. Things have a way of working themselves out – one way or the other – and will do so with or without your intervention.

Don’t care what people think! Although we all would like to feel others think well of us, unless you’re paying my bills, your opinion of me has little importance.

Learn to say, "no".

As for childhood traumas or life experiences that still haunt you and cause you stress in any way, do what you have to do to get away and over it. There may be a person/event in your past you feel has made your life the stressful inner shambles it is today. You must put it behind you. Get counseling, meditate, get into your religion if you have one; do what’s necessary to get past whatever it is. Here’s how I look at it…

If someone jumps out in front of you and shoots you in the arm is the person who did it a lunatic criminal who ought to be caught and punished?  Yes, of course. But at the end of the day, you still have a hole in your arm and it’s up to you to seek treatment and try to heal it. “Every dog has his day,” as my dad used to say, and karma has a way of catching up with people sooner or later.

In conclusion, stop watering dead plants and giving memories of distant events and people rent-free space in your head. Don’t concern yourself over things that haven’t and may never, happen. Save your concerns over the big things in life and stop sweating the small stuff.

©2022 Guiomar Goransson