Q&A: The impact of stress


Q. Why do some people gain weight when they feel stressed?

A. People who eat in response to stress are likely to find themselves packing on pounds for the same reason other people gain weight – because they are eating more calories than they are burning. However research also suggests that chronic stress raises the level of chemicals that increase appetite, especially for food rich in carbohydrates.


Q. Are you more likely to get sick when you are stressed?

A. Several studies have concluded that you may be more likely to get a cold when you are under stress. Although other research has shown that both short- and long-term stress affects particular immune system cells, it's not yet clear whether this increases the risk of disease.


Q. Why does my stomach hurt when I'm feeling stressed?

A. A combination of psychological and physical factors can trigger gastrointestinal pain and other symptoms. Gastric acid secretion can increase, which may lead to heartburn and inflammation of the esophagus. Stress can also cause abnormal contractions in the small intestine and colon, which may result in abdominal discomfort.


Q. How does stress affect my heart?

A. Chronic stress damages your blood vessels in a number of ways. As blood pressure rises, the walls of your arteries may become damaged. Research also suggests that stress hormones may increase your cholesterol levels, which contributes to the formation of fatty plaques that can block the arteries.


Q. Is stress always bad?

A. Not at all. Researchers have found that as stress or anxiety increases, so do performance and efficiency – at least initially. At a certain point, though, rising stress becomes detrimental. That's why it's important to learn how to manage stress. You may not be able to avoid stressful situations, but you can learn how to change how you respond to them.

May 2008