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Am I Literally Killing Myself with Stress?

stress killingChronic emotional distress can magnify the effects of all the physiological stressors listed in my last article entitled: Is It My Fault That I’m Sick?

Emotional distress causes physiological stress.

Common symptoms of it are:

  • Headache
  • Neckache
  • Backache
  • Bellyache

Think of a time.

Think of a time when you developed a headache, neck ache, bellyache, or backache as a result of feeling emotionally distressed. The pain, discomfort, burning, or other unpleasant sensation is a symptom of physiological stress. Physiologically, the symptom could be the result of the triggering of an imbalance in stomach acidity or from a constriction of arteries in the chest or in the wall of the heart. When experienced day in and day out, these symptoms serve to warn us of potentially impending heart disease, gastrointestinal disease, suppression of immune function or of the malfunction of virtually any organ system.

Janice Kiecolt-Glaser
Janice Kiecolt-Glaser

Allostatic Load (cumulative strain on the body)

Ohio State Medical School researcher Janice Kiecolt-Glaser describes how chronic physiological stress that accompanies chronic emotional distress increases what is called allostatic load—cumulative strain on the body—and this in turn increases vulnerability to disease. Of course, emotional distress is just one factor, and many people diagnosed with cancer have not experienced any chronic emotional distress prior to diagnosis.

Can good genes protect me?

Some people are very lucky to have been born into families with exceptional genetics. Those individuals have some degree of immunity against many of the causes of disease. However, chronic emotional distress or some other form of chronic physiological stress will eventually shorten the lifespan of even the genetically well-endowed.

Can I Overcome Bad Genes?

By the same token, there are others who inherit a genetic profile where family members typically don’t live beyond middle age. Yet, when these individuals avoid bad habits, eat a nutrient-dense diet of just the right quantities of food, get an hour of daily exercise, sleep seven to eight hours a night, and minimize exposure to environmental toxins, they are more likely to live full, vibrant lives well into old age.


What About Things Like Social Support and Community?

When they engage in additional healthy practices, such as becoming a contributing member of some type of caring community, their quality of life and longevity increase still further. In addition, there are other practices that can improve quality and quantity of life even more.

The following are all evidence-based attributes strongly associated with increased health and wellbeing.

  • Practicing gratitude
  • Authentic self-expression
  • Altruism
  • Finding and increasing meaning and purpose
  • Living by self-identified life values
  • Mindfulness practice


We are not the victims of our genes.

We cannot change our genetics, but we can avoid bad habits and adopt healthy ones. We can try to minimize exposure to environmental toxins, but living in the modern world makes a certain degree of exposure unavoidable. This is also true when it comes to exposure to pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, and even parasites, unless one lives in an isolated, hermetically sealed environment. However, the single healthiest attribute of people who live vibrant lives into old age is that they are contributing members of a caring community.

manifesto-focusIn Summary

Researchers in psychoneuroimmunology, positive psychology, and mind-body medicine often recommend:

  • Identifying and living in harmony with your personal values
  • Going toward what gives your life meaning and purpose
  • Finding a way to be a contributing member of some type of cohesive community
  • Living as full a life as possible


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Am I Literally Killing Myself with Stress?

Dr. Larry Berkelhammer

Dr. Berkelhammer is a retired mind-body medicine psychologist. He writes about mindfulness-based practices with a unique emphasis on optimization of wellbeing and health. Dr. Berkelhammer also lectures at San Francisco State University and UC San Francisco, and is currently teaching a class in Marin County through College of Marin. He is the author of the book "In Your Own Hands; New Hope for People with Chronic Medical Conditions".

See his extensive website:

In Your Own Hands: Mindfulness-Based Practices to Optimize Wellbeing - College of Marin Community Education

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APA Reference
Berkelhammer, D. (2015). Am I Literally Killing Myself with Stress?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 21, 2019, from


Last updated: 20 Apr 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 20 Apr 2015
Published on All rights reserved.