Chronic stress has real, physical consequences. “A wealth of studies are showing that stress has an effect on our physical health,” explains Dr. Rachel Bond, associate director of the Women's Heart Health Program at Northwell Health, Lenox Hill Hospital. “It’s not just in your head. It’s not an indication of weakness or incompetence.”
The stress response evolved in humans as a protective mechanism that induces the fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline pumps. Heart rate increases. Senses become more acute. “It was meant to be temporary to get you out of a deadly situation,” Dr. Bond says. “Now, hundreds of events that pose no threat can trigger the stress response. Chronic stress wears down the body.”
Indeed, caregivers report that their own health has gotten worse since they took on the work of caregiving, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving. Chronic stress can depress your immune system, exacerbate chronic conditions such as asthma, increase your risk of diabetes, and lead to the buildup of plaque in your arteries.
Stress has been shown to trigger health symptoms, though many people don’t realize that’s what is at the root of their ailments. “Women get bloating or IBS. Their skin breaks out. They might have difficulty concentrating or sleeping,” says Dr. Bond, but they don’t always attribute these symptoms to stress. As a result, women power on without getting checked or making lifestyle changes to try to relieve some tension. In fact, most survey respondents report that they delay health care because they think the issue “is not serious.”