Can Chronic Stress Cause Mental Illness?

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Stress is a normal part of life. It’s how the body and brain respond to external stimuli. To a certain extent, stress is beneficial. It helps motivate us and enables us to manage high-pressure situations. But what happens when stress becomes chronic?

Physiology of Stress

During a stressful experience, the body increases cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. The result is increased blood pressure, sweating, alertness, and heightened muscle preparedness. 

While the stress response is necessary when there is a threat, your body is not meant to stay in a stressful state. 

Over time, chronic stress can negatively affect the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems. And when left unmanaged, it can lead to serious health problems, like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and mental health disorders. 

Chronic Stress Can Harm Mental Health


Depression is a common mood disorder that negatively affects how a person feels, thinks, and acts. A person who has depression may experience sadness or lose interest in activities they once enjoyed.  

Depressive episodes are often triggered by a stressful life events. Job loss, divorce, and the diagnosis of a major medical illness are all examples of events that may precede the onset of depression. 


Stressful life events also commonly occur before anxiety disorders. Some studies even show that patients with anxiety are more likely to develop depression after stressful life events.

Anxiety is your body’s natural response to stress. Like stress, it’s normal to feel anxious from time to time. When anxiety is extreme, persists for longer than six months, or begins to interfere with your daily life, an anxiety disorder may be to blame. 

While anxiety and stress are both emotional responses, they have different causes. Stress results from external stimuli, like a tight deadline or an argument with a loved one. It subsides once the situation resolves.

Conversely, anxiety is the response to stress. It doesn’t always go away once the stressor is gone.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is characterized by dramatic shifts in mood, energy levels, and behavior. They cycle from manic episodes, in which they feel more energized to a depressed state over days, weeks, or months. 

Chronic stress can trigger a manic or depressive state in a person with bipolar disorder. It can also worsen an episode by increasing the intensity or extending the duration of symptoms.

Managing Chronic Stress

Long-term stress can affect the structure of your brain, especially the areas that support learning and memory. The good news is that many of the changes that occur with stress can be reversed with proper stress management. 

Meditating, exercising, and adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced diet and good sleep hygiene can help manage stress. It may also be helpful to be realistic about the activities you have time for and not to be afraid to say “no” when necessary.

Make Stress Management a Priority

Stress is necessary for daily life, but it shouldn’t affect your quality of life. By being proactive about managing stress, you may be able to prevent or even reverse some of its harmful effects. 

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