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Stress Can Kill You: How to Cope

Life stressors can lead to nasty diseases. Here's how to chill out.

For many of us, stress starts when we wake and ramps up throughout the day. We are steeped in it. For the worst afflicted, it can define their lives. We may no longer have to deal with lions on the savannah, but we have stressors aplenty, and they are unrelenting.

Tero Vesalainen/iStock
Our mad world is full of stress
Source: Tero Vesalainen/iStock

A short stress sampler:

  • Rising healthcare costs are worrisome, especially if we have chronic conditions.
  • Tweeting presidents are stressful (even presidential supporters often cringe at his tweets).
  • Global climate change makes us wonder if we should even bother to have kids.
  • Facebook is depressing (why does it seem that our friends are always having a better time than we are?).
  • Environmental toxins slowly chip away at our health.
  • Unhealthy fast food makes us sick (the source of much microbial dysfunction).
  • Lack of sleep or nasty shift schedules keep us constantly drowsy.

Feel free to add to the list.

Our jobs stress us. The boss is bossy, and we are often asked to work a little extra—like weekends or nights. Predictable nine-to-five workdays are a thing of the past. Instead, we have "flexible" hours, a sweet-sounding euphemism meaning the boss can reach us anytime, any day. We can stand up to our boss, of course, but the last person who did that is still sending out resumes.

The omnipresent cell phone that was supposed to liberate us has become our jailer. With our lives on continuous hold, how can we even plan for future events? We never know when the call will come; it's not up to us.

That uncertainty, coupled with our powerlessness over it, is a toxic combo. It can make us vulnerable to generalized anxiety disorder, affecting one in 20 people—and growing. There is no release, and it can make us sick.

Humans are fantastic prediction machines.

What our minds can do is truly amazing. We call it "thinking," but predicting the future is the real secret sauce. When we make a decision, we already have expectations for the consequences. It is such a deep part of our psyche, we don't even notice it.

When someone tosses us something, we reach out to catch it (or duck) without a thought. Our brain understands gravity and parabolas well enough to predict where any projectile is going—a phenomenal calculation of the future that we undertake with aplomb.

That speedy predictive power is handy in a demanding world that may depend on us to duck, but it also means that we can't appreciate how central prediction is to our well-being. And so, when it is denied us, we don't always know why we feel so put out. When our circumstances keep us from making predictions, anxiety starts to cloud our minds.


A rock doesn't respond if you kick it. It doesn't care if you pour acid on it. But insults like that are stressors for living creatures, which have the amazing ability to respond to them by adjusting their biochemistry to stabilize the situation.

If you become acidic, your body quickly adjusts by forcing you to breathe faster, forcing out acidic carbon dioxide. Your kidneys produce bicarbonate to neutralize the acid. This amazing push-back against stressors is called homeostasis, and it is one of the main distinguishing features of life.

The gut-brain axis

Trillions of bacteria live in our gut, and on a good day, they are in homeostatic balance with each other and with us. Remarkably, stress can affect these gut microbes. When we pump out adrenaline and cortisol, we are putting our body on action alert: our muscles power-up, our mind races.

That takes energy away from our guts. The rules of evolution have crafted this reaction for a good reason: First, we run from the lion, only then do we worry about digestion.

Our immune system is also put on hold. We can deal with our flu after we escape the lion. But that combination makes our gut vulnerable to invasion by certain unruly microbes that are always waiting for us to drop our guard. Thus stress may lead to a leaky gut that, in turn, can give us systemic inflammation that contributes to anxiety. This is a positive feedback loop, and it can be overwhelming.

It's a two-way street

Our gut microbes can also affect our stress levels. Part of that is super reasonable: When we eat poison, either from a bad oyster or a Russian spy, we need to pay attention, and that dials up our anxiety. The anxiety helps us to focus on the problem at hand and to find a toilet, STAT.

The way our gut talks to our mind is sometimes blatant. Big messages are routed quickly. Our mind draws an indelible connection between the poison and our reaction. That is designed to keep us from a repeat experience. Eating another bad oyster is a great way to win a Darwin Award, but not a reliable way to propagate the species.

However, most of this two-way communication is subtle. When things are out of sort, when our equilibrium is disrupted, our brain and our gut have a low-key powwow. Sometimes that is successful: Anxiety is dampened, and our gut regains its balance.

But when negotiations break down, it can lead to a nasty feedback loop, exacerbating a bad mood and creating a leaky gut and inflammation. That, in turn, can lead to anxiety, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and more.

The short version

In sum, stress can cause the brain, through a series of pathways, to produce hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These crank up the stress response, which tends to put the digestive system on the back burner. Over time, that may lead to a leaky gut, allowing toxins and bacteria to enter the bloodstream. That may lead to systemic inflammation that can make you sick and further inflames and stresses the brain, creating a vicious cycle.

Homeostasis is a wonder of nature, but it can't keep tugging us back to normalcy forever. The stress response uses up resources rapidly; it isn't meant for long-term situations. Our systems start to degrade when they are continually stressed.

Almost all chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and more, are associated with this degradation and systemic inflammation. It can be frustratingly difficult to break out of this deadly loop.

What to do:

  • Find a good psychiatrist. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has shown good results with stress and anxiety. There are also many psychoactive drugs to try, but if you are averse to meds or are having a hard time with side effects, some doctors are beginning to try probiotics and prebiotics.
  • Ease off the booze. I know, a glass of something alcoholic really shaves the edges off a stressful day. But if you overindulge, you'll be sorry in the morning. Manufacturers like to tell you that a glass or two is therapeutic, and that may be true. But too much can make your gut leak, and you know where that leads.
  • Concentrate on your breathing. This is a sneaky way to get in touch with your autonomic nervous system to calm it down. This is the idea of mindfulness, to concentrate on something that is happening right now to take your mind off the long-term problems that are complicating your life.
  • Eat lots of different kinds of fiber to promote a wide variety of helpful bacteria that can help to heal and nourish your gut lining. That can make up for the lowered immune reaction induced by stress. Mediterranean diets are high in fiber and fish and have been shown to reduce anxiety.
  • Getting used to uncertainty is tricky, but you can chip away at it. Quit reading the news. Reassure yourself with the fact that the world has always been on the verge of disaster, but has managed to tick on for many millennia.
  • Exercise oxygenates your brain, helping you to cope better with stress. It also improves your gut composition.
  • Get a pet. Animals seem able to toughen your immune system, perhaps by introducing you to new, beneficial bacteria. People who live on farms have fewer allergies and anxieties and can cope with stress better than city dwellers. Combine this tip with the previous one and go walk your dog.

Stress is unlikely to go away, but you have more control than you think. These tips should boost your resilience and keep you from succumbing to life's unfortunate nastiness. Give them a try!


Moloney, Rachel D., Lieve Desbonnet, Gerard Clarke, Timothy G. Dinan, and John F. Cryan. “The Microbiome: Stress, Health and Disease.” Mammalian Genome: Official Journal of the International Mammalian Genome Society 25, no. 1–2 (February 2014): 49–74.

Allen, Jacob M., Lucy J. Mailing, Grace M. Niemiro, Rachel Moore, Marc D. Cook, Bryan A. White, Hannah D. Holscher, and Jeffrey A. Woods. “Exercise Alters Gut Microbiota Composition and Function in Lean and Obese Humans.” Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 50, no. 4 (2018): 747–57.

Campbell, Sara C., Paul J. Wisniewski, Michael Noji, Lora R. McGuinness, Max M. Häggblom, Stanley A. Lightfoot, Laurie B. Joseph, and Lee J. Kerkhof. “The Effect of Diet and Exercise on Intestinal Integrity and Microbial Diversity in Mice.” PLoS ONE 11, no. 3 (March 8, 2016).

Böbel, Till S., Sascha B. Hackl, Dominik Langgartner, Marc N. Jarczok, Nicolas Rohleder, Graham A. Rook, Christopher A. Lowry, Harald Gündel, Christiane Waller, and Stefan O. Reber. “Less Immune Activation Following Social Stress in Rural vs. Urban Participants Raised with Regular or No Animal Contact, Respectively.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 20 (May 15, 2018): 5259–64.

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