Stress and its influence on lifestyle diseases

It is known that certain disorders such as depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disorders or reduced immune competition can be closely related to stress.

It is a watering factor for both our physical and mental health. It can alter or affect health by various forms and mechanisms (precipitating the onset of a disorder, affecting the course of a disease, generating new sources of stress, producing physical and mental discomfort, reducing our well-being and our quality of life, etc.)

We can deduce that stress constitutes a dangerous vicious circle, because it generates a whole series of consequences which are also sources of stress. Below we will see the link between stress and so-called lifestyle diseases.

    Lifestyle diseases

    In Western civilization, the main causes of death are due to chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease (myocardial infarction, hypertension, etc.) and cancer. Other health disorders, such as mental disorders (Depression, hypochondria, somatization problems, etc.), are associated with marked health problems, loss of quality of life and work problems.

    For many of these types of disorders, the concept of lifestyle-related illnesses has been suggested. There are many irrigating factors characteristic of the way of life of our society which are important sources of stress, such as unemployment and job insecurity, unhealthy eating habits, toxic habits such as smoking, etc.

    These factors are sometimes cause or consequence, or both. The result is a continuous level of overactivation that ends up affecting our health either directly (continuous increase in heart rate) or indirectly (promoting unhealthy behaviors, like binge eating).

    Before the invention of penicillin, in the first half of the 20th century, our greatest invisible enemy was bacteria. Today, with advances in medicine and the massive use of vaccines, the main threat is stressAs in advanced societies, it causes more death and suffering than viruses and bacteria. So much so that the WHO, in October 1990, estimated that these lifestyle diseases were responsible for 70 to 80% of premature deaths in industrialized countries.

    Depression, anxiety, essential hypertension, strokes, tumors, traffic accidents, allergies, myocardial infarctions, psychosomatic complaints and many other health problems could, to some extent , be considered as diseases or lifestyle disorders due to their association with psychosocial stress. Let us therefore take seriously the words of the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti:

    It is not a sign of good health to be perfectly adapted to a deeply sick society.

      How stress affects us

      A stressful event always involves a change or the expectation of a changeIn this sense, it is a threat to homeostasis (the body’s natural balance), so it puts us on alert. The stressful potential of a life event depends on the amount of change it involves: the larger the change, the greater the likelihood of getting sick.

      Stress overload for the body does not act specifically, predisposing to a particular disease, rather it leaves us in a state of helplessness, which decreases our body’s overall ability to regenerate, Defend and recover, making us more vulnerable.

      Small events, “minor annoyances” such as typical traffic jams on the road at rush hour, constitute the bulk of stressful small events on a daily basis. By having the force of habit, these daily discomforts are part of our routine, we integrate them naturally, normalizing them, and responding less to these small complications than to large vital changes.

      It is believed that this type of daily stress, due to its cumulative impact, could be a greater source of stress than major life changes and would be a better predictor of health conditions, especially chronic conditions.

        Psychological and somatic symptoms

        The accumulated experience of trouble seems to predict the level of psychic (mainly emotional) and somatic (somatic complaints in general) symptomatology.

        Many authors have found relationships between daily stress and levels of anxiety and depression, general somatic and psychological complaints, symptomatic level in different somatophysiological systems (cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, sensorineural, musculoskeletal, skeletal, etc.), psychological well-being and psychological symptoms from different areas.

        There is also a relationship, although less clear, between daily stress and the appearance of psychopathological disorders (Anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, etc.), which however seem to be linked to the previous occurrence of vital events (major events).

        Perhaps the most important relationship between daily stress and these disorders would occur through an affect on the course of the disorder, worsening its symptoms, rather than acting as a trigger.

        Daily stress and physical health disorders

        The nervous and hormonal changes generated by stress have various repercussions on our state of health. Below you can see which are the main ones.

        1. Gastrointestinal disorders

        There are several books that link daily stress to the development of certain chronic medical diseases. Gastrointestinal disorders have received some attention, like Chron’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome.

        Regarding irritable bowel syndrome, several authors have indicated the advisability of setting up cognitive-behavioral adaptation programs to stress for the treatment of these patients and even more if one takes into account the fact that medical treatments are only palliative type.

          2. Rheumatoid arthritis

          some research have linked stressful life events to the onset of rheumatoid arthritisAlthough it appears that stress, especially everyday stress, plays a role in worsening symptoms. There is some controversy as to whether it works through immune changes associated with stress or whether it does so by increasing sensitivity to the pain response.

          3. Cancer

          Already in 1916, statesman Frederick. L. Hoffman pointed out the low prevalence of cancer in primitive peoples, Suggesting a close relationship between the development of this disease and the way of life of modern societies.

          In 1931, the missionary physician Albert Schweitzer observed this same phenomenon, as did the anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson in 1960. The latter explains in his book Cancer: Disease of Civilization, how on reaching the Arctic he observed the non-existence of the cancer in the Eskimos and how this disease increased its prevalence when the primitive people of the arctic came into contact with white man.

          More recently, it has been shown that the weakened immune system that causes stress is linked to an increased presence of cancer.

          4. Migraine

          Several authors have reported a close relationship between the discomfort and symptoms of migraine. An increase in daily stressors would produce more severe headaches, associating both the frequency and the intensity of the pain.

            5. Coronary heart disease

            Daily stress can worsen the symptoms of angina in patients with coronary artery disease. On the flip side, increased stress could predict angina of the week. next,

            6. Cardiovascular responses

            It is linked to stress and hypertension and / or coronary artery disease and gambling an important role in increasing blood pressure.

            7. Infectious diseases

            Several authors indicate that daily stress is a factor that increases vulnerability to infectious diseases such as upper respiratory tract infections, influenza or herpes virus infections.

            8. Immune system

            The literature linking the involvement of stress to the functioning of the immune system is very abundant. This effect could be seen in diseases mediated by the immune system, such as infectious diseases, cancer or autoimmune diseases.

            This influence of stress on the immune system has been observed in both acute (one exam) and chronic stressors (Unemployment, conflicts with the partner) or vital events (loss of the spouse).

            There is not as much literature regarding the influence of daily stress, although it has been observed that positive events in our lives are related to an increase in an antibody, immunoglobulin A, whereas events negatives tend to reduce the presence of this antibody.


            The consequences of stress are multiple, affecting at different levels (physical and psychological) manifesting themselves very differently in their form and severity. Much of this stress overload is related to our particular lifestyle and it is in our hands to make changes to reduce this negative influence on health.

            Finally, insist on the fact that beyond the influence of external factors generating stress, there are variables in the person which modulate the greater or lesser adequacy of the response to the demands of the environment. There are personality variables like neuroticism (tendency to worry) that make us particularly vulnerable to stress or to personal factors like resilience that harden us against it.

            Remember that if you are afraid of the circumstances, you can always turn to a professional psychologist who will teach you the appropriate strategies to better cope with the difficulties of everyday life.

            Bibliographical references:

            • Sandin, B. (1999). Psychosocial stress. Madrid: DOPPEL.

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