Stress is not just something unpleasant that can prevent us from enjoying life to the fullest and leave us feeling rushed and overwhelmed. As well as being a drag, it’s actually also very bad for our health and can be dangerous. If you feel stressed then you put yourself at much greater risk of illness.
One of the effects that stress hormones have on our body is to suppress the function of the immune system. Remember: the purpose of stress in the wild was to ensure that we would stand the best chance physically of surviving predation or altercation with another human – it was intended to optimize our physical and mental performance in the short term and thus energy was directed away from things that wouldn’t help in that scenario, such as the digestive and immune systems.
When you are chronically stressed, your immune system becomes less active and you are thus much more likely to fall victim to all kinds of illnesses.
This is how stress can lead to any illness. But meanwhile there are also many more illnesses that can actually be caused directly by stress. Read on to find out what the top illnesses caused by stress are and how they are linked to anxiety.
TMJ, also sometimes called TMD, stands for ‘Temporomandibular Disorder’ and basically refers to pain of any origin – often unknown origin – experienced in the jaw and lower face.
While the precise origin often varies though, it tends to be related to stress, making this one of the more common illnesses caused by stress.
The reason for this is that TMJ tends to be either caused or exacerbated by tension in the jaw and even bruxism (grinding of the jaw). Stress causes muscles to clench and this then means that you can end up unknowingly grinding and clenching your teeth together while you sleep, resulting in TMJ.
Studies show that both tension headaches and migraines correlate with stress.
Tinnitus is one of the top illnesses caused by stress and causes a slight ringing noise to be heard in the ear (even though there’s objectively no sound). This can be very frustrating and can lead to poor sleep and other issues.
The reason that tinnitus can cause stress is that the associated neurotransmitters increase focus and sensitivity – making us more alert and aware of our senses. In extreme cases this can happen to the point where the brain registers ‘false positives’ – it is searching so hard to find noise that it creates its own.
Stress can make asthma worse in numerous ways and causes the airways to close up due to tension as well as making breathing more shallow and rapid. Asthma can not only be worsened by stress but also caused by it – you are more likely to develop asthma if you experience common and regular stress.
Stress can lead to major depression, while in other cases the two can simply occur together making this one of the top illnesses caused by stress or correlated with it. In some cases, even positive events such as getting married or starting a new job can cause stress that leads to depression.
The connection between stress and depression is through the ‘happiness hormone’ serotonin. This neurotransmitter normally works to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression and even works as a pain reliever (analgesic). Unfortunately though, serotonin is suppressed during the stress response and if this continues for too long this can result in low mood and also the experience of pain.
Norepinephrine and dopamine meanwhile are two other neurotransmitters that are linked with stress, motivation and drive. If you are overly stressed, this can lead to large amounts of both these neurotransmitters being produced to the point where the body ‘runs out’ (this is called adrenal fatigue). This can then result in a period of low energy and low motivation which could also be linked with depression.
Fibromyalgia is a condition that can be best described as a combination of depression and extreme arthritis-like sensitivity and pain throughout the body. Patients with fibromyalgia can struggle to move without experiencing discomfort and will have difficulty waking up in the mornings.
Fibromyalgia is closely linked with depression, which we’ve already seen is one of the top illnesses caused by stress. As stress also heightens sensitivity (as with tinnitus) and low serotonin means you have lower levels of natural painkillers, it’s easy to see how this could result in all the symptoms associated with fibromyalgia.
When you are stressed you will find that your mind races as much as your heart rate does. Both these effects are once again caused by neurotransmitters and hormones designed to make us more alert and aware of danger. Unfortunately this makes it very difficult to get to sleep. Insomnia is thus one of the most common illnesses caused by stress and this in turn can also indirectly lead to many more issues.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
IBS is not one condition but several including bloating, cramping, constipation and diarrhea. This is partly stress related as bowel movements and digestion are closely regulated by hormones and other signals. Stress also increases sensitivity which might increase the sensitivity of the nerve signals in the gut, as well as encouraging muscle contractions which can further exacerbate imminent bowel movements.
It’s interesting to note that it’s not just people who have IBS who might experience a sudden change in bowel movements facing an emotionally stressful experience. For instance, being very scared, frightened or surprised can often cause ‘accidents’ even in healthy individuals.
If you define an addiction to smoking or alcoholism as an illness, then any of these can also be considered among the top illnesses caused by stress. That’s because stress puts us in a state of psychological distress that’s highly unpleasant and that most people will want to try and escape if possible. This can then lead to self-medication using alcohol, drugs, food, cigarettes and more which provide temporary relief but which might subsequently lead to dependence and addiction.