Can stress kill you?

Chronic stress can raise blood pressure, triggering heart attacks and strokes. [Photo: Getty]

Whether it’s work deadlines, debt or even road rage, we all get stressed from time-to-time.

While for most the feeling passes, others become overwhelmed and unable to cope.

In the short term, stress can leave us anxious, tearful and struggling to sleep.

But over time, continuously feeling frazzled could trigger heart attacks, strokes and even suicidal thoughts.

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“In short, yes, stress can kill you,” Dr Diana Gall from Doctor4U told Yahoo UK.

“Though it’s not the stressful situations that kill you, it’s how you deal with stress that affects your health.”

When we encounter a stressful situation, our body produces hormones that send us into “fight or flight”.

This causes a surge in the hormone adrenaline, which gets our heart pumping and raises our blood pressure, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The “stress hormone” cortisol also gets released, curbing functions that are non-essential in a fight or flight scenario, like the immune and digestive systems.

Fight or flight can be helpful, with the sudden release of adrenaline giving us the “boost” we need to get through a big work presentation or even escape danger.

Once the stressful situation has passed, our hormone levels should return to normal.

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“It’s when this stress becomes excessive over considerable periods of time that it can develop into what’s termed ‘chronic stress’,” Dr Daniel Atkinson, clinical lead at Treated.com, told Yahoo UK.

In the past year, nearly three quarters (74%) of people in the UK have felt so stressed they were left struggling to cope, according to a Mental Health Foundation survey.

“Rather than the fight or flight response to certain situations being activated and then diminishing once the nerve-wracking event has passed, the response persists, and our stress hormones are triggered repeatedly,” Dr Atkinson said.

The long-term activation of the fight or flight system causes cortisol to flood our bloodstream, disrupting important bodily functions.

Over time, sufferers may endure digestive problems, weight gain and even heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Speaking this International Stress Awareness Week, Dr Atkinson said: “In terms of high blood pressure, recurring fight or flight responses can give rise to hypertension, which can make you more susceptible to heart attacks and strokes if it isn’t addressed.”

Stress also triggers unhealthy habits, with 46% of the Mental Health Foundation’s 4,000 respondents claiming they ate too much or unhealthily when frazzled.

More than a quarter (29%) blamed their chronic stress for drinking too much, while up to 16% claimed it drove them to take up smoking.

Stress may also take its toll on our mental health.

Of those who felt stressed, 61% reported battling anxiety and 51% had depression.

In severe cases, 32% of those who felt stressed at some point in their life admitted to having suicidal thoughts.

“There is evidence the brain’s neurotransmitters and hormones, which form part of the typical stress response, can become distorted in the face of traumatic events,” Dr Atkinson said.

“This causes people with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to experience ‘false alarms’, as the amygdala - a part of the brain that deals with fear - becomes hyperactive, resulting in panic episodes that may be extreme in nature. 

“Ultimately, research supports manifestations of long-term stress can kill.”

What are the symptoms of stress?

Stress can affect you emotionally, mentally and physically, according to the NHS.

Emotionally, many feel overwhelmed, ‘wound up’ and anxious.

Feeling frazzled may also put a downer on their mood, leave them unable to enjoy themselves and cause a looming sense of dread, according to the charity Mind.

Others may become anxious and afraid or feel neglected and lonely.

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Struggling to cope with stressful situations can also take its toll on our mental wellbeing.

Many battle racing thoughts, constant worrying and difficulty concentrating or making decisions.

Perhaps surprisingly, stress can also affect us physically.

Headaches, muscle tension, dizziness, insomnia, fatigue, and eating too much or little, are all symptoms of stress.

In more severe cases, sufferers may hyperventilate, have panic attacks, grind their teeth, endure chest pain or see their blood pressure rise.

How to feel less stressed

The good news is, stress can be both prevented and treated.

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, the NHS recommends exercising to help clear your thoughts.

“Exercise has been shown to release endorphins, chemicals in the brain that elevate mood and lower stress hormones,” Dr Atkinson said.

Confiding in a loved one or taking time out to do activities you enjoy may also make your problems feel more manageable.

“Maintaining a strong support network in general can help you to identify solutions and change your perspective,” Dr Atkinson said.

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While it may be tempting to turn to alcohol, smoke or coffee to calm your nerves, Dr Atkinson warns these are only short-term solutions.

“New hobbies, such as learning a new language or playing a new sport, can serve as a beneficial distraction for your mind and improve self-confidence through showing to yourself you can take positive action,” he said.

Both the NHS and Dr Atkinson also recommend mindfulness to help stress sufferers feel more in control.

“Mindfulness is the act of giving more attention to your thoughts and feelings in the present, as well as to the environment around you,” Dr Atkinson said.

“It helps to interrupt the ‘autopilot’ mode that’s very easy to inhabit on a daily basis.

“And the increased awareness that’s given to our thoughts and feelings can better equip us to notice signs of stress developing.” 

If “self help” fails to ease your stress, Dr Gall recommends seeking medical help.

“If you’re wondering whether or not the stress you’re facing is ‘too much stress’, then it’s best to talk to your GP or seek a mental health expert,” she said.

Warning signs may include struggling at work or school, finding it difficult to get through the day, turning to drugs or alcohol, insomnia, depression and even suicidal thoughts, Dr Gall added.

If you have had thoughts of self harm or suicide, the Samaritans are available 24/7 on 116 123.