Your stressful job could be making you ill—find out how.
In our society, work can be an ever-present source of pressure. Whether it's office politics, not liking your job, workload, low pay or conflicts with co-workers, work stress can affect your mind—and your body. In fact, 75 percent of the health problems that send people to the doctor in the U.S. are stress-related, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Take a look at these five common stress-related illnesses, and see what you can do to lessen their symptoms. If work stress seems to be affecting your health, find out what you can do to relieve stress to keep yourself from getting sick.
1. Heart disease and high blood pressure
Why it happens: According to Carnegie Mellon University research, persistent workplace stress contributes to heart disease. This can include heart rhythm abnormalities and heart attacks. Some studies have also linked stress and high blood pressure.
What you can do: If you smoke, quit. Your risk of a heart attack will go down, and you'll lower your blood pressure, too. You should also eat a high-fiber diet that's low in saturated fat and cholesterol, keep your weight healthy and get regular exercise. Keep an eye on your cholesterol, as well.
2. Digestive problems
Why it happens: Stress is a problem that many people feel in their gut. Prolonged or heavy stress can cause digestive problems, irritating the large intestine and causing diarrhea, constipation, cramping and bloating. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS, or spastic colon) is strongly linked to stress. In addition, heartburn (GERD) is ramped up by stress.
What you can do: To lessen the chance you'll have an attack of IBS, try to eat a variety of foods and avoid anything that's high in fat. Drink plenty of water. Try eating five or six smaller meals a day rather than three large ones.
As for heartburn, you shouldn't smoke. Limit caffeine and alcohol, especially on an empty stomach. You may also want to avoid aspirin, ibuprofen and spicy foods. If you still get heartburn frequently, see your doctor. Over-the-counter medicines help, but first your doctor should check to see what's appropriate for you.
3. Headaches, muscle pain and joint pain
Why it happens: Stress can cause tension headaches or trigger migraines. Some research indicates that headache sufferers may have a biological tendency for turning stress into muscle contractions. Many people also tense their neck, jaw, shoulders and back when they're under pressure, causing extended pain in their joints and muscles.
What you can do: Several medications can help migraine sufferers. Learn to spot the signs of an onset early, and keep medications with you. Use a diary to track headache triggers (such as food, hormones, work stress or even changes of the weather) and avoid those triggers when possible.
For migraines, as well as muscle and joint pain, massage and acupuncture can help. Stretching exercises can relieve back pain, and hot baths can soothe muscle pain while reducing overall stress.
4. Problems with eating, drinking and drugs
Why it happens: Many people get cravings for salt, fat and sugar in order to deal with chronic tension. And then they gain weight. Others lose weight or get eating disorders. Stress can even trigger an overactive thyroid gland, which makes you hungry but causes your body to burn calories faster than normal. Many people also turn to alcohol and drugs to dull the pain of a stressful job.
What you can do: If you eat too much (or not enough) when you're stressed, or you eat unhealthy foods, keep track of what you eat and when. Tracking your habits can help you pick healthier snacks—or exercise—instead of diving into the doughnut box during that daily meeting.
Support groups, such as Overeaters Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous, can help with eating disorders and substance abuse. And of course, psychologists and therapists are professionally trained to treat them. They can help you understand your reactions to stress and replace harmful responses with healthier alternatives.
5. Trouble sleeping
Why it happens: Stress often causes loss of sleep. In fact, it may be the No. 1 cause of short-term insomnia. We've all spent long nights tossing and turning, fretting about a project that didn't get done on time or replaying conversations in our heads. Stress also affects the levels of certain hormones in the body. High levels of these hormones can make it very hard to get shut-eye.
What you can do: Short-term answers like sleeping pills can end up causing more problems in the long term. Consider them only under the supervision of a doctor. A few simple habits can help you get a good night's sleep, but remember, the only real cure for stress-related insomnia is to reduce some of the pressure you're under.
For all types of stress, following a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and making time for relaxation are the keys to wellness. Meditation, yoga and tai chi are great ways to get a handle on workday pressure. Deep breathing exercises, relaxation tapes and soothing music can help. It's up to you to figure out what works for you. And, if the pressure is too great, you may want to change the way you live and work for your well-being.
Talk to your doctor to find out if your health problem is stress-related and to learn about options for stress management programs and treatments.
- Stress and anxiety
- Stress management
- Q&A on Stress for Adults: How it affects your health and what you can do about it
Published on April 1, 2011; updated on May 14, 2014.