Does Feeling Stressed Stack the Deck for Disease?

October 27, 2015

Deadline looming? Baby screaming? Bounced a check? Stress is a part of all our lives, and increasingly public health researchers are recognizing that more than temporary aggravation, stress can inflict lasting damage on our health.

Stress has many different consequences. Mailman School faculty are researching how it impacts pregnant women, preschool children, and the LGBT community, its effect on eating habits, and the overall wear and tear it takes on the body.   


Stress comes in many shapes and sizes. Traumatic stress, such as child abuse, and psychosocial stress, such as an upcoming work deadline, vary in frequency and severity. Someone who is experiencing a particularly harsh stressor over and over again could have a different health outcome from someone with a one-time urgency.  

Shakira Suglia, assistant professor of Epidemiology, has studied how stress can lead to the manifestation of obesity and a number of other outcomes in preschool-aged children.

“Stress is a big issue,” Suglia says, “because it can be seen as the precursor to traditional health pathways like sedentary lifestyle and dietary habits.”

Stress also drives behaviors like how often we choose to exercise and why we might gravitate towards comfort foods, according to Suglia.

Other troubling outcomes have also been documented. Mark Hatzenbuehler, assistant professor of Sociomedical Sciences, examined stigma and prejudice in the LGB population, finding that those who lived in communities with high levels of prejudice have a shorter life expectancy.


It would be fair to question how all these situations might impact a person’s ability to withstand the physical and emotional effects of stress.

Pam Factor-Litvak, professor of Epidemiology, has researched that very variable through allostatic load, a concept first coined by Bruce McEwen and Teresa Seeman in 1993, that measures the cumulative wear and tear of stress on the body.

“Some stress is necessary,” Factor-Litvak says, “but it’s the excessive stress, the allostatic load, that we really need to pay attention to.”

For example, imagine what happens to your body when you see a snake: your heart rate increases, your pulse starts to race, you may sweat or feel lightheaded. Eventually your body returns to its normal state, but if you were to see that snake again and again and again, eventually the body can’t return to normal. Those same physical symptoms can be applied to other social situations, such as not knowing if there’s enough food in the refrigerator or enough money to pay the rent.

In the cohort Factor-Litvak studied, she found that African Americans experience higher levels of allostatic load, even after controlling for early and current social circumstances. A handful of other psychosocial factors, including socioeconomic disparities, educational attainment, and parental involvement, were also considered in her research.


Environmental Health Sciences Professor Frederica Perera, with her colleagues at Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, has examined the combined effects of stressors related to poverty and air pollution.

In one study, Perera found that maternal psychological distress combined with exposure to air pollution during pregnancy can have an adverse impact on the child’s behavioral development. To protect children, she recommends a multifaceted approach, including strengthened policies to reduce air pollution exposure and alleviate material hardship in order to protect the developing fetus and young child.

In order to address this issue at the population level, Factor-Litvak says conversations need to take place at the national level. It’s never been more important to take stress seriously. With the increasing use of smartphones and always-on-call professional lives, “people think they need to do more and more, Factor-Litvak says, “so stress is continuing to build.”