From daily struggles like work pressure to traumatic events like the death of a loved one, we’ve all felt some form of stress in our lives — and now we’re experiencing new stressors caused by a global pandemic. But stress can have long-term health effects and should not be shrugged off, according to doctors.
Emotional and mental strain can wreak havoc on our minds and bodies. It can leave us more vulnerable to several conditions, including depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure and gastrointestinal trouble.1
“The impact of stress on the body can be acute or chronic, and it can happen suddenly or be exerted in a low-grade fashion over time,” said Dr. Ernesto Schiffrin, physician-in-chief in the department of medicine at Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. “It can contribute over time to increase in blood pressure, coronary artery disease, heart attacks, and eventually heart failure.”
Along with heightened levels of stress caused by COVID-19, people now have fewer ways to get solace — face-to-face interaction with loved ones, for example, is largely prohibited. All Americans are encouraged to practice social distancing, which means staying at least six feet from others and limiting in-person interactions.2
And although stress can feel like a minor inconvenience, it may have serious consequences.
Schiffrin described stress in general terms as “aggression against the body,” which could be coming from within — like a disease or ailment — or could be coming from your environment. When the body feels attacked, it activates the “fight-or-flight” reaction, releasing adrenaline and increasing cortisol levels. Excess exposure to these hormones can affect just about every system in the body.3
“After an acute stressor ends, the levels usually return to normal,” said Dr. Sherita Hill Golden, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. But if they remain elevated, the body can become more resistant to insulin, leading to heart disease and diabetes. “Insulin resistance also can make the body more prone to inflammation and lead to damaged blood vessels,” added Golden.
“Extreme events can lead to general anxiety and other acute distress disorders that have been linked to several health conditions,” Schiffrin said. According to a 2018 study, people with stress-related disorders were more likely to be diagnosed with autoimmune diseases than those without stress disorders.4
Another study from 2019 showed that, during 27 years of follow-up, the incidence of cardiovascular disease among those with stress disorders was higher than in those without them.5
While the effects of stress can manifest over time, they can also come on quickly. The sudden onset of intense stress can cause broken heart syndrome, also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy. This is when part of the heart enlarges and doesn’t pump as effectively. It could be brought on by the death of a loved one, or even a divorce, breakup, or betrayal, and its symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack.6
Even minor everyday stressors can affect our bodies. A 2018 nationwide study found lingering negative feelings caused by daily stressors were associated with more chronic conditions 10 years later. The study stressed the importance of effectively recovering from stress.7
Fortunately, there are multiple ways to manage stress, even with new restrictions and life changes brought on by the coronavirus. These include:
Being active creates a natural high and can help combat negative feelings. Regular physical activity has been shown to relieve stress, tension, anxiety, and depression.8 This can tackle stress from two angles: by releasing endorphins in the body to produce a feel-good effect, and by avoiding unhealthy behaviors caused by stressful feelings.
Maintain social connections
Connect with others and talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you’re feeling.9 While social distancing, people can make time to video chat, talk on the phone, or take part in online communities to talk through the sources of stress.
Make time to unwind
Take part in activities that bring you joy and explore new hobbies.
Limit news intake
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends taking breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories that address issues about the pandemic. Too much exposure can be upsetting.
Get plenty of sleep
Given the change in schedules and routines, people may find they’re experiencing sleep disruptions. But since sufficient sleep is important for stress management, it can be helpful to establish a new bedtime routine, and stay as close to it as you can on a daily basis.
There are certain types of stress that cannot be managed without professional help. “If it becomes debilitating or turns into extreme anxiety or depression, it’s important to consult a doctor,” Golden said.
“In that case, it’s worth talking to your doctor to see if you could benefit from counseling and medications to treat it,” she said. “Stress really does adversely impact health. The mind-body connection is very important.”
Watch this video to learn more about how stress can affect your health and some coping strategies that may help.
Things to Consider:
- Taking a break from the news can provide much-needed respite from stressful information.
- Exercise can make us feel good by releasing endorphins and providing a natural high.
- Having regular social interaction — though it may not be face-to-face — helps us feel less alone and provides a way to talk through our feelings.
This article was prepared by the American Heart Association (AHA). Transamerica is not affiliated with the AHA and does not control, guarantee, or endorse the information. This information does not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Transamerica Resources, Inc. is an Aegon company and is affiliated with various companies which include, but are not limited to, insurance companies and broker dealers. Transamerica Resources, Inc. does not offer insurance products or securities. The information provided is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical or financial advice or guidance. Please consult your personal independent professionals for answers to your specific questions.
1 “Stress Symptoms: Effects On Your Body And Behavior ,” Mayo Clinic, April 2019
2 “The Do's And Don'ts Of Social Interaction During A Pandemic ,” American Heart Association, March 2020
3 “Stress Management ,” Mayo Clinic, March 2019
4 “Association Of Stress-Related Disorders With Subsequent Autoimmune Disease ,” Journal Of The American Medical Association, June 2018
5 “Stress Related Disorders And Risk Of Cardiovascular Disease: Population Based, Sibling Controlled Cohort Study,” British Medical Journal, April 2019
6 “Broken Heart Syndrome ,” Mayo Clinic, November 2019
7 “Let It Go: Lingering Negative Affect In Response To Daily Stressors Is Associated With Physical Health Years Later ,” Psychological Science, March 2018
8 “Exercise And Stress: Get Moving To Manage Stress ,” Mayo Clinic, March 20189 “Stress And Coping,” Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, April 2020