Can Stress Kill You? Beyond Chaos: The Impact In-Between

Can Stress Kill You

Can Stress Kill You

Updated June 2023

Fear increases stress and stress, weakens the immune system. The extensive data listed below clearly indicates that stress can be deadly, especially to the old, who in most cases have some pre-existing disorder, and additional anxiety places an extra load on the weakened immune system. So stress can kill you; a host of data seems to indicate that in the long run, it can kill you.

During acute stress lasting a few minutes, certain cells are mobilised into the bloodstream, potentially preparing the body for injury or infection during “fight or flight” [1]. Acute stress also increases blood levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines [2]. Chronic stress lasting from days to years, like acute stress, is associated with higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines but with potentially different health consequences [3].

Inflammation is a necessary short-term response for eliminating pathogens and initiating healing, but chronic, systemic inflammation represents dysregulation of the immune system and increases the risk for chronic diseases, including atherosclerosis and frailty [4]. Another consequence of chronic stress is the activation of latent viruses. Latent virus activation can reflect the loss of immunological control over the virus, and frequent activation can cause wear and tear on the immune system [5].

Can Stress Kill You? Unveiling Immune System Weakening.

In addition, stress decreases the body’s lymphocytes — the white blood cells that help fight off infection. The lower your lymphocyte level, the more at risk you are for viruses, including the common cold and cold sores.

High-stress levels also can cause depression and anxiety, again leading to higher levels of inflammation. In the long-term, sustained, high levels of inflammation point to an overworked, over-tired immune system that can’t properly protect you.

Ongoing stress makes us susceptible to illness and disease because the brain sends defense signals to the endocrine system, which then releases an array of hormones that not only gets us ready for emergency situations but severely depresses our immunity at the same time.

Some experts claim that stress is responsible for as much as 90% of all illnesses and diseases, including cancer and heart disease. The way it does this is by triggering chemical reactions and flooding the body with cortisol that, among other things, decreases inflammation, decreases white blood cells and NK cells (special cells that kill cancer), increases tumor development and growth, and increases the rate of infection and tissue damage.

Can StressKills You? Assess Its Impact on Your Body and Decide.

It has become well accepted in recent decades that psychological stress can adversely affect many aspects of immune function (Glaser and Kiecolt-Glaser, 2005). The full health impact of stress, however, may not be fully revealed until the effects of aging are more widely appreciated. Chronic stress may speed the rate of normal age-related immune dysregulation (Kiecolt-Glaser and Glaser, 2001Sapolsky et al., 1986). Moreover, age-related disease and impairment may augment the effects of stress or result in more significant clinical impairment for older individuals (Hawkley and Cacioppo, 2004Kiecolt-Glaser and Glaser, 2001).

Aging is associated with a natural decline in immune functioning. Immunosenescence is observed in many facets of both innate and adaptive immunity. For example, older individuals have a poorer natural killer cell (NK) response to stimulatory cytokines than younger individuals [1]. Aging is also associated with impaired activation and proliferation of T- and B-lymphocytes [2]. Furthermore, the B-lymphocytes of elderly individuals produce fewer antibodies than those of younger individuals [3].

In addition, increased production of certain inflammatory mediators is observed during aging [4]. These immunological changes make older individuals more susceptible to various age-related diseases. However, immunosenescence appears to place older individuals at greater risk when combined with accumulating chronic illnesses, repeated infections, or other external factors [5]. Chronic stress may be one of the factors leaving elderly individuals more vulnerable to age-related diseases [6,7].


Stress’s Link to Infections

In the early 1980s, psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, and immunologist Ronald Glaser, PhD, of the Ohio State University College of Medicine, were intrigued by animal studies that linked stress and infection. From 1982 through 1992, these pioneer researchers studied medical students.

They found that the students’ immunity went down every year under the simple stress of the three-day exam period. Test takers had fewer natural killer cells fighting tumors and viral infections. They almost stopped producing immunity-boosting gamma interferon and infection-fighting T-cells responded only weakly to test-tube stimulation.

Those findings opened the floodgates of research. By 2004, Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, of the University of Kentucky, and Gregory Miller, PhD, of the University of British Columbia, had nearly 300 studies on stress and health to review.

Their meta-analysis discerned intriguing patterns. Lab studies that stressed people for a few minutes found a burst of one type of “first responder” activity mixed with other signs of weakening. All aspects of immunity went downhill for stress of any significant duration – from a few days to a few months or years, as happens in real life. Thus long-term or chronic stress, through too much wear and tear, can ravage the immune system.

Stress Weakens Immunity: Effects on Unhealthy Individuals?

Now if stress suppresses the immune systems of healthy individuals, then the effects on the elderly who tend to panic more and many of which have some underlying condition (especially if they are on a modern-day diet) should be even more pronounced. And possibly deadly if they have to deal with a stronger virus or bacteria than usual.

The analysis of multiple studies also indicated that older individuals or those dealing with health issues are more susceptible to stress-induced immune changes. For instance, a 2002 research conducted by Lyanne McGuire, PhD, from John Hopkins School of Medicine, alongside Kiecolt-Glaser and Glaser, found that even persistent, mild depression, which doesn’t meet clinical thresholds, can weaken the immune system in older individuals. The study involved participants in their early 70s who were caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease.

Among those experiencing chronic mild depression, their lymphocyte-T cell responses to two mitogens, used to simulate the body’s reaction to viruses and bacteria, were weakened. This weakened immune response persisted even after 18 months and declined with advancing age. In alignment with the 2004 meta-analysis, it became evident that the crucial factor affecting the immune system was the duration of depression, not its severity. For older caregivers, the combination of their depression and age posed a double challenge to their immunity.

Rising Coronavirus Hysteria Amplifies Stress Levels.

And viola, that seems to be the case, so instead of trying to calm the population, the governments in the West are doing their best to stress out the older individuals that are already facing other stressful issues. For example, pensions that don’t cover the cost of living or inadequate medical help, etc.

The researchers noted that lack of social support has been reported in the research as a risk factor for depression, an insight amplified in a 2005 study of college students. Health psychologists Sarah Pressman, PhD, Sheldon Cohen, PhD, and fellow researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity and Disease, found that social isolation and feelings of loneliness each independently weakened first-year students’ immunity.

Reconsidering Social Distancing in Times of Stress: Is It the Best Approach?

To top it, all experts have come up with this term social distancing that is confusing many, and so they have decided to come up another term called Physical distancing.

According to Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization, speaking at a virtual press conference on Friday, the move to use “physical distancing” comes from a desire to highlight “keeping the physical distance from people so that we can prevent the virus from transferring to one another.”

Why invent all these phrases? Why not just say, hey, you know, for a bit of time, it would be better if you don’t get too close to your older relatives as they are the most vulnerable, and this is just a temporary measure. This new term adds more stress to an already stressed out-group (the elderly). The most susceptible become even more vulnerable as their immune systems are further weakened as stress has been shown to reduce immunity.

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