Learning Hub Social Environment

Stress and Health

We all experience at some point in our lives - but how does it effect our health? Although many think of it as a psychological condition, stress causes a physical response that can contribute to illness or disease  

We all experience stress at some point in our lives – but how does it affect our health? Although many think of it as purely psychological, stress can cause a physical response that can contribute to illness or disease. 

What is stress?

Stress is something we all experience at some point in our lives. Too much stress can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with physical, mental, or emotional pressure. Although many people think of stress as purely psychological, stress causes a physical response that can contribute to illness or disease if not properly managed.

There are three types of stress:

Acute (short-term) stressImmediate threats (e.g. mugging, wild dog)
Physical Injuries
Car accident
Broken leg
Job loss
Chronic (long-term) stressChronic illness (e.g. cancer)
Climate and weather events (e.g. drought)
Financial struggles
Family conflict
Episodic stressRepeated acute stressors

Who is most at risk?

  • Pregnant women and their babies: Pregnancy is one of the most vulnerable periods of exposure to stress. Studies show that a mother’s stress during pregnancy is associated with changes in fetal growth and child behavioral and respiratory problems.
  • Caregivers: People that provide care for older family members and/or family members with long-term illnesses experience high levels of stress and poorer health as a result.  
  • Low-income populations: Low-income communities are more likely to experience major stressors such as job loss, food insecurity, and exposure to violence. Low-income individuals may also lack access to health care and mental health supports, which worsens the impacts of stress on their health.  Low-income populations and communities of color also experience higher exposures to harmful chemicals and pollutants that have been shown to worsen the effects of stress.
Pregnancy is one of the most vulnerable periods of exposure to stress. Image: Adobe Stock

What are the health impacts of too much stress?

Stress is a normal response to immediate threats in our environment and can be helpful in small amounts. Moderate stress triggers a response in the body that increases alertness and improves physical performance, brain function, and memory. However if the body’s response to stress continues after the threat has passed, health problems may arise.

High levels of stress or stress that continues over a long period of time (chronic stress) can negatively impact health in many ways. This is because chronic stress triggers the release of a hormone called cortisol. Hormones like cortisol travel through the bloodstream, meaning that they can reach all of the parts of the body.  For this reason, too much cortisol over long periods of time can:

  • Reduce immune function, making you more susceptible to illness and infection
  • Worsen asthma
  • Elevate blood pressure
  • Increase risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Affect digestion and lead to stomach ulcers
  • Increase fat storage and contribute to obesity
  • Lead to problems sleeping
  • Contribute to symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • Cause “brain fog” and memory impairment

Stress during pregnancy can impact child health in many ways including:

  • Birth outcomes: Higher prenatal maternal stress is associated with reduced birth length, weight, and head circumference.
  • Respiratory problems: Children of moms who experienced more stress throughout their lives or during pregnancy have an increased likelihood of respiratory infections and risk of developing asthma.   
  • Behavioral changes: Greater maternal stress during pregnancy is associated with increased risk of child emotional and behavioral problems including ADHD and impaired cognition

How can we reduce toxic stress?

There are many ways to reduce stress.
Managing stress:

How we’re studying the impacts of stress on health at the Institute

Dr. Rosalind Wright

Rosalind Wright, MD, MPH, is the Director of the Asthma Coalition on Community, Environment, and Social Stress (ACCESS) project as well as the Programming of Intergenerational Stress Mechanisms (PRISM) study funded by the National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute (NHLBI). These studies follow pregnant women and their children over time to explore how psychological stress causes changes in the body that may influence health outcomes such as asthma and nervous system development.

Dr. Wright’s team also examines how psychological stress interacts with chemicals in the environment such as air pollutants to worsen health outcomes. She is also identifying factors that make people resilient to the effects of stress and trauma on health such as social supports and nutrition.

Findings from the PRISM and ACCESS studies show that women who are exposed to trauma early in life and who also have elevated levels of cortisol are more likely to have babies who have low birth weight. These findings were only seen in male babies, suggesting that the male fetus is more vulnerable to the impacts of maternal stress.

Further Learning

Watch: Dr. Wright’s Lunchtime Chat webinar on stress and childhood asthma

Listen: Dr. Wright on the Road to Resilience Podcast: Thriving After a Devastating Loss

Read: Integrated and diurnal indices of maternal pregnancy cortisol in relation to sex-specific parasympathetic responsivity to stress in infants