The Relationship Between Stress and Physical Illness

A substantial amount of research has been done to prove the correlation between stress and physical illness. This research proves that stress is a large contributor to both the onset and progression of both physical and mental illnesses. Walter Cannon first confirmed the stress response system in the late 1920’s. His observations and research proved that certain stressors such as lack of oxygen, extreme cold, and emotional incidents all lead to the release of stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine from the adrenal glands. Cannon discovered that the brains response to the hormone increases the body’s heart rate and respiration, dulls pain, releases sugar and fat, and brings blood from digestion to the skeletal muscles. Cannon called this concept fight or flight. There are however, alternatives to Cannons stress method, fight or flight, and those include withdraw, pull back and then conserve energy, and also “tend and befriend” which is common among women and means to seek and give support. The method of withdraw, pull back and then conserve energy is most often seen after the death of a loved one. In these circumstances most people withdraw from the situation in a state of shock. They then realize what has happened and pull away from the situation and start showing emotional responses such as crying. The last step when observing this method is to conserve energy. This includes possibly lying down, or the end of crying frantically. The “tend and befriend” method most commonly occurs with women as a reaction to stress. This method is considered to be the method that shows how women deal with stress differently and usually more successfully than men. This method ranges from asking a stranger for directions to talking on the phone to relatives and friends. Women more often seek social support than men during times of stress.

Physical illness is associated with stress because of the body’s biological            response system dealing with stress. Some large spread human and animal studies have shown that uncontrollable stressors increase gastric lesion tendencies, and reduce immune defenses. A thirty-year study on the high stress job of air traffic controller’s helps show that not only is it a biological effect but also an environmental/behavioral response. The thirty-year study showed an increase in high blood pressure among air traffic controllers, assumed to be because of their high stress jobs working away at their nervous systems. However, in 1987, DeFrank established that the high blood pressure was because of an increase in alcohol consumption among the air traffic controllers. Their health was not just caused by the biological affect of years of stress, but on the behavioral response of drinking because of their increased stress. Its kind of like the saying, “what came first the chicken or the egg?” The stress caused the drinking and the drinking lead to the high blood pressure. Stress may not have directly caused the high blood pressure, but it did cause a change in behavioral responses within the air traffic controllers.

It is important to remember that not all stress is bad for the body or mind. Has stress at school or work ever prompted you to achieve something worthwhile and helped you develop new skills? Many Psychologists have found that not all stress is bad. Stress can help motivation, problem solving, and the fighting of infections. Even the most stressful situations such as surviving Cancer can have a positive affect on people’s lives. Some Cancer survivors emerge with a newfound spirituality or stronger self-esteem because of the stress they endured and then conquered. A personal battle with long-term health problems can be very difficult and stressful, however some individuals start to develop a new self worth and new dreams and desires because of it. When someone survives an illness or life-threatening situation more times than not a person will take life less serious and live everyday thankful to be alive. This attitude is what helps most survivors deal with the situation that has arose in their lives.

It was this positive stress outcome that helped mold my life into what it is today. My first semester at college I became very ill with what I believed to be a horrible stomach bug. As the days and then weeks passed and symptoms became worse, I began seeing doctors and specialists daily. I had to leave school and soon became hospitalized. It took doctors weeks to finally discover what was wrong and plan a course of action. A previous trauma had caused damage to my liver, which was causing an inability for me to process food, which then became two months of not eating and feeling very close to death’s doorsteps. After months of being too ill to walk without blacking out, I still remember the first day I successfully walked around my house, and then down the block and can even recall the fresh air after spending so long in hospitals and inside lying in bed. I felt a sense of joy and excitement towards life and the smallest of things that I had never felt before. The stress of being so sick and the positive outcome of getting better changed my entire viewpoint on life. I started back at school a year later with the highest amount of self esteem I had ever had in my life and the general desire to worry less and experience more. Despite all the stress of being ill and even the stress of having to put my life on hold, the outcome was something I could never have achieved without going through all that stress in the first place.

In conclusion, stress is something everyone has to deal with at some point in his or her lives. The difference between jeopardizing your health and accomplishing stressful tasks is how you handle the stress. It is important to find that one thing that helps to relieve stress in a way that is individually suiting.


Myers, David G. “Exploring Psychology In Modules.” (7th ed.). (2008) Holland, MI: Worth, 2008. Print.

Stress and health.” Cambridge Handbook of Psychology, Health and Medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

“You May Have Always Suspected It, But A Study Suggests That Women Do Cope With Stress Differently Than Men.” August 2000.

1 comment

  1. Thank you for sharing with us your unfortunate experience with suffering an illness that thankfully you’ve overcome. Yes, surviving stressful experiences does create a new version of yourself – almost “battle-tested”. This new you is resilient.

    I myself had a stress experience that others would consider traumatizing but as a result of knowing what to do so to speak my body and mind absorbed the stress and thankfully no one was hurt. Just Saturday night a regular trip to the store, I was delayed my return home when an armed robber decided he’d try to rob a busy variety store at gun point. When you’re forced into this bystander position you really don’t know what you would do until you actually are going through it. But not panicking is always recommended.

    As you stated with how the body reacts with a fight or flight method or tend or befriend, I agree how a lot of research confirms both to be effective methods of handling stress. Taking my situation into account and analyzing how others reacted, or didn’t react, absolutely was a result of how instinctively that immediate stress was handled to minimize jeopardizing anyone’s health.

    I thought he was going to shoot someone deliberately or by accident as I saw the would-be robber nervously ask for the register money. He was trying to watch the cameras, and redirect walk-in customers to stand where I was standing, and wasn’t getting any assistance as the Asian store manager wasn’t cooperating. All of these factors overwhelmed the robber who saw how this was a situation he wasn’t in much control of and took flight.

    The way my mind and body reacted was to not move further, I saw how unsure he was and thought for a second “do I take another step towards him?” But then what? Would I prompt him to identify me and only me as the one “hero”? Everyone was caught off guard but I watched as it all unfolded so my response was gradual. My body tightened, heart rate quickened, etc. As part of the response system to balance itself out, after the threat had passed I felt pale but obviously relieved.

    You made a great point by stating how overlooked stress is as both a motivator and an influential force. Knowing that this store has been targeted will keep me from going there again. Seeing how I reacted and didn’t create an escalated and potentially more life-threatening response also serves as an indicator that this stress serves as a positive that I hope to never have to experience again, while sharing with others who hopefully will remember what I mentioned worked for me in my post.

    Overcoming stress, some stress being far worse and much more difficult to deal with as some stress is daily and can come in various forms and levels, is easier said than done. But knowing that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” – this can be mentally or physically or both, is also important to remember when keeping in mind how we perceive stress, and handle stress. Identifying stress is important in the recovery process as it allows a “plan” or subsequent steps to be used towards maintenance and well-being. Thinking positive and remaining positive is always more effective too.

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