Study: Stressing About Stress Is Bad for You

People who thought stress was negatively affecting their health were twice as likely to have heart attacks, regardless of how much stress they actually experienced. ... Is this article only making the problem worse?
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PROBLEM: "Constant stress puts your health at risk," warns the Mayo Clinic. Meanwhile HuffPo not-helpfully chimes in with "10 Scary Things Stress is Doing to Your Body." Does anyone else get the feeling that stressing over the health impact of how stressed you are just might be counterproductive?

METHODOLOGY: Back in 1991, 7,268 London-based civil servants were asked how much the thought the stress they experienced impacted their health, on a scale from "not at all" to "extremely." 18 years later, researchers in France, Finland, and the U.K. looked back at their answers and compared them to how many of the participants ended up experiencing fatal or non-fatal heart attacks.

RESULTS: Eight percent of the participants reported that stress affected their health either "a lot" or "extremely," and by the end of the study, those same people were over twice as likely to have suffered a heart attack as those who believed it didn't impact their health at all. This was independent of how much stress they actually experienced. 

IMPLICATIONS: To some extent, the results may reflect a self-fulfilling prophecy. The people who thought stress impacted them a lot were also more likely to report experiencing high levels of stress. And even though the relationship between perceived effects of stress and heart attacks remained significant after that and a wide variety of other factors were controlled for, they more likely to be have self-reported medical problems and psychological distress, more likely to smoke, and less likely to eat daily fruits and vegetables, get enough exercise, or have a lot social support. So psychological, biological, and behavioral factors are all probably in play here. 

Still, there are people who can handle stress better than others, and it's probable that those for whom stress took the largest physical toll just knew they weren't the type to thrive under pressure. If that's the case, the takeaway is simply that if you feel like stress is killing you, there's a good chance it is. 


The full study, "Increased risk of coronary heart disease among individuals reporting adverse impact of stress on their health: the Whitehall II prospective cohort study," is published in the European Heart Journal.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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