Stress, Illness And Disease

Stressed mum

Although it is widely understood that stress is not good for us, it is relatively unknown just how severe the impact of chronic stress can be over long periods of time. Selye, during his studies in hospitals coined the term “the syndrome of getting sick” after noting that numerous people with differing diseases all complained of a lack of energy, motivation, inability to eat and a desire to stay in bed. He noted they all “felt and looked ill, had a coated tongue, complained of more or less diffuse aches and pains in the joints, and of intestinal disturbances with loss of appetite… a fever, enlarged spleen or liver, inflamed tonsils, a skin rash” alongside various other symptoms. These illnesses wouldn’t be diagnosed until more well known, specific symptoms would present itself as a disease, such as cardiovascular disease[1].

It struck Selye that more research was needed into the relationship between inflammatory diseases and “just being sick”, to explore what symptoms predate the diagnosis of disease, or even hospital admission. If more attention could be focused on generalised symptoms, Selye reasoned, it could be possible to prevent such diseases and improve the way they are treated.

However, it is not just doctors that had not engaged fully with the relationship between stress and serious illness; people who suffer from continued stress often continue to endure it until they fall ill and are then forced to rest to heal the consequential illness, and neglect the fact that it could have been prevented.

While Selye was tasked with identifying a new sex hormone, he discovered that despite whatever type of toxic substance he injected his lab rats with, the autopsies displayed the same findings; enlarged adrenal glands, weakened lymphatic systems, including the thymus, peptic ulcers on the stomach and duodenum. Experimenting further, Selye placed his rats in uncomfortable and ‘stressful’ situations, such as on cold surfaces in the laboratory, or on a continuous treadmill which forced the rats to stay in the same position for extended time. The results were the same as when they were injected with noxious substances. It was a result of these studies that Selye connected the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to the way the body handles stress[2].

This connection is involved with how the body responds, to fight against stressors. The hypothalamus, which is the bridge between the brain and endocrine system, communicates with the pituitary gland, which is gland which produces hormones and is rooted in the base of the skull. The hypothalamus then releases adrenocorticotrophic hormones (ACTH) into the bloodstream, prompting the adrenal cortex, above the kidneys, to create stress hormones, corticoids. These corticoids are sent to the required parts of the body to combat the stressor[3].

Selye found that the nervous and hormonal responses to stressful situations, or “stressors” help a person cope with the impact it has on the body, what he described as General Adaptive Syndrome (GAS). However adaptive the body may try to be to withstand stressors, there are limits to how much the body can process and defend the body from; when chronic stressors begin to break weaken resistance in the body, diseases of adaption can occur, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, psychological conditions, sexual dysfunction, metabolic diseases, cancer, weakened immune systems and digestive diseases[4].

More contemporary research by Christine Bryla, a nurse researcher, examined literature that focused on the relationship between stress and the advancement of breast cancer and the intermediary effects of the immune system. The studies that she used to support her research showed a positive relationship existed between stress and the development of breast cancer, however the exact process was not determined.

The majority of researchers Bryla used in her studies suggested that women of certain characteristics developed the cancer or experienced the more advanced stages; these traits were largely being over-reactive to emotional stress[5]. Furthermore, research has found that those who are either unable to cope with stress, or endure chronic stressors, or both, tend to display more high-risk behaviours, such as smoking, using drugs, driving dangerously or disregarding a healthy diet. While these hypotheses are not able to be generalised due to question of methodological validity, they all strongly indicate that managing stress is hugely beneficial for not only our wellbeing, but our ability to live a disease free life.

If you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling to find the right help for any form of mental health issue, including stress, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).


[1] – accessed 12/01/2020

[2] – accessed 13/01/2020

[3] – accessed 12/01/2020

[4] – accessed 12/01/2020

[5] Bryla, Christine M. “The relationship between stress and the development of breast cancer: a literature review.” In Oncology nursing forum, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 441-448. 1996. – accessed 12/01/2020