I don’t mean to stress you out further with this information, but the chronic stress that is so common in the modern office can lead to a distressingly long list of maladies.
- Heart Disease
While scientists have yet to determine the exact causal mechanisms, there is a ton of evidence that links chronic stress to in increased risk of cardiac conditions. It might related to the inflammation that is part of the body’s response to chronic stress. It might be the coping mechanisms that some people use when under prolonged stress (smoking and overeating, e.g.). It might be the effects on the rest of the cardiovascular system. Regardless of the exact mechanism, it’s safe to say that reducing the stress in your life can improve your heart health.
- Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
Researchers are confident that they know how stress causes atherosclerosis. The constant release of hormones that comes with chronic stress creates an inflammatory process that culminates in atherosclerosis. Stress is a leading cause of hardened arteries, possibly causing as many as 40% of cases.
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
Obesity is the best-known cause of hypertension, along with excessive salt, fat, and alcohol consumption, but chronic stress, especially work-related stress, rounds out the list. One stress study found that “in normal-weight essential hypertension, chronic mental stress is the primary driver.”
It turns out that stress probably isn’t a significant cause of ulcers – it’s more likely Advil and bacteria. As one researcher reports, “The major etiologic factors in chronic peptic ulcer are ingestion of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and infection with Helicobacter pylori.” Still, there is a link between stress and slow wound healing (see below), so you may be able to help heal your peptic ulcer by managing your stress. (And I still like this stress-management advice I once received: “Give ulcers, don’t get ’em.”)
The links between stress and depression are complex and often loop back on one another. It can be difficult to say which came first, the stress or the depression. For example, the changes observed in the brain when you are depressed look a lot like the effects of severe chronic stress, and vice versa. Another example: If you’re in a bad mood, your productivity may suffer; if your productivity at work lags, you may get bummed out. Regardless of exactly how the cause-and-effect loop works, you may be able to prevent or reverse depression by managing your stress at work.
- Impaired Memory, Learning, and Judgment
The impact of stress on memory is a two-way street. Stress can actually improve the early stages of memory formation, when you are first laying down new memories. But your ability to retrieve memories and to “reconsolidate” them into long-term learning are both impaired by stress. To make matters worse, chronic stress tends to take the prefrontal cortex (the “executive function” part of the brain) offline, making you less able to focus on what’s important and to make good decisions. This, of course, is not a good situation, given that most office jobs entail a fair amount of thinking, learning, and decision-making.
- Upper Respiratory Tract Infections
Chronic stress has been linked to colds and other respiratory infections in numerous studies. The good news: most of these studies show that stress-management measures reduce the incidence of illness.
Stress is a well-known trigger for asthma attacks, and it can actually make an asthma attack worse. Again, the good news: stress-management practices can help reduce the frequency and intensity of asthma episodes.
- Autoimmune Diseases
Numerous studies have shown a link between stress and autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s Disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis (MS). Much like the relationship between depression and stress, there can be an unfortunate reinforcing loop. As one stress researcher says, “Not only does stress cause disease, but the disease itself also causes significant stress in the patients, creating a vicious cycle.”
Stressful events in childhood are a common trigger of this syndrome, and stress – either prolonged chronic stress or a traumatic stressful event like a car accident – can cause or aggravate it in adulthood, or in the office.
- Gum Disease
There are both physiological and psychological links between stress and gum disease. The elevated cortisol levels that come with chronic stress may harm the gums and jaw. Also, when you are under stress you are more likely to adopt bad habits like smoking, eating unhealthy foods, and neglecting to brush and floss.
- Slow Wound Healing
Stress has both direct and indirect impacts on wound healing. The immune-system suppression that comes with stress prevents tissues from healing as quickly as they might. And unhealthy stress-related behaviors like smoking, poor food choices, and disrupted sleep patterns have been shown to further impair healing.
- Accelerated Aging
We’ve all seen the 45-year-old who, after a long stressful career, looks 65. Scientists in Sweden have explained this by observing that telomeres (protective caps at the end of chromosomes, to grossly oversimplify) are shortened when they are exposed to the stress hormone cortisol. Telomere length is thought to be a reliable measure of biological age, so these shortened telomeres can explain accelerated aging under prolonged stress.
- Sex, Infertility, and STDs
Prolonged stress can also affect your sex life, causing or exacerbating ovulation disorders in women, erectile dysfunction in men, and herpes and other sexually transmitted diseases for anyone.
Managing your stress at work can, of course, reduce the risk you face.
Up next: a list of the best ways to manage stress in the office.