Stress Related Illness

Gabriel von Max (1840–1915): Anna Katharina Emmerich

The ravages of chronic stress are numerous. For those that want to live a long life, besides worrying about your cholesterol levels and those LDL lipoproteins, one should also take action to reduce your stress levels. 

The Scope of the Problem

70-90% of the visits to primary care physicians are due to stress related illness such as backache, headache, insomnia, anxiety, depression, chest pain, hypertension, gastrointestinal and dermatologic complaints. Stress also suppresses the function of the immune system and reduces defenses against viruses, bacteria, and AIDs (Rosch & Pelletier, 1987). 


Six Stress-Related illness are:

Heart disease




Ulcerative colitis


But these are not the only ones. According to the Kim Foundation research on the numbers of individuals who have mental illnesses in America

Approximately 40 million American adults ages 18 and older, or about 18.1 percent of people in this age group in a given year, have an anxiety disorder

Approximately 6 million American adults ages 18 and older, or about 2.7 percent of people in this age group in a given year, have panic disorder.

Approximately 6.8 million American adults, or about 3.1 percent of people age 18 and over, have GAD in a given year.

Approximately 7.7 million American adults age 18 and older, or about 3.5 percent of people in this age group in a given year, have PTSD.

Jan Steen (1625/1626–1679) Love Sickness a.k.a. The Lovesick Girl


Case Examples of Stress Induced Death

Case 1: Grief Causing Death in Monkeys

Jane Goodall described the death of Flint, a young male chimpanzee, after his mother, Flo, died:

Flo lay down on a rock, toward the side of a stream and simply expired. She was quite old. Flint stayed near her corpse he grabbed one of her arms and tried to pull her up by the hand. The night of her death he slept close to the body, and, by the following morning, he showed signs of extreme depression.

After that, no matter where he might wander off to, he kept returning to his mother’s body. It was the maggots which, at last, drove him away; he’d try to shake the maggots off her and they would swarm on to him.

Finally, he stopped coming back. But he did remain in the area comprising about 50 square yards; and he wouldn’t move any further away from the place where Flo had died. And in 10 days he had lost about a third of his body weight. He also developed a strange, glazed look.

At last Flint died too; he died very close to the spot where his mother had died. In fact, the day before he had returned to sit on the very rock where Flo had lain down (by then we had removed her body and buried her).

The results of the post mortem have been negative. They indicated that although he had a certain parasite load and one or two bugs, there was nothing sufficient in itself to cause death. And so the major cause of death had to be grief (Scarf, 1973).

Extreme Stress Causing Sudden Death in Humans

Engel (1971) documents 170 cases of sudden death during psychological stress, collected over a six-year period in these five cases.

Case (1), The death of a loved one An 88 year-old man, without known heart disease, became upset and excited, wringing his hands upon being told of the sudden death of his daughter. He did not cry but kept asking, “Why has this happened to me?” While talking with his son on the phone he developed acute pulmonary edema and died just as the doctor reached the house.

Case (2). A 22 year-old girl with malignant paraganglioma had been deteriorating but was still able to take drives with her mother. On one such outing the mother was killed when thrown from the car in an accident; the girl was not injured. Within a few hours she lapsed into coma and died. The autopsy showed widespread metastases but no evidence of trauma.

Case (3). Threatened loss of a loved one. A 43 year-old man died four hours after his 14 year-old son, faking a kidnap call over the phone, said “If you want to see your son alive, don’t call the cops.”

Case (4). A 44 year-old man found himself in a totally unbearable situation and felt forced to move to another town. But just as he was ready to make the move difficulties developed in the other town that made the move impossible. In an anguished quandary, he, nonetheless, boarded the train for the new locale. Halfway to his destination, he got out to pace the platform at a station stop. When the conductor called, “All aboard,” he felt he could neither on nor return home; he dropped dead on the spot. He was traveling with a friend, a professional person, with whom he shared his awful dilemma. Autopsy showed myocardial infarction.

Case (5).  A 27 year-old asthmatic woman apparently died of cardiac standstill and did not exhibit asthma either before or during the interview. She had been reluctantly drawn into a discussion of her psychological problems, including the humiliation of a seduction, an illegitimate baby, and a rape attempt by her brother. As she recounted how she had been increasingly rejected by and cut off from her family and had to quit junior college and take menial jobs only to lose them because of asthmatic attacks, she became increasingly excited, cried, hyperventilated, and finally collapsed unconscious just as she was saying, “Naturally I always lost my job and had no hope anymore to recover. That’s why I wanted to die and want to die all the time, because I am no-good, no-good.”

Case (6): The Power of a Mother’s Curse

A healthy, middle-aged man had spent most of his life in the shadow of his mother. Fatherless, he described her as “a wonderful lady who made all the family decisions correctly and who never met a situation she could not control.” At 31, financed by his mother, he bought a nightclub, and she helped him to run it. At 38 he married, and his wife, not surprisingly, began to resent his dependence on his mother. When he received a profitable offer to sell the nightclub, he told his mother he was considering it, and she became distraught. Finally, he decided to sell. His mother told him, “Do this, and something dire will happen to you.” Two days later he had his first asthma attack. He had no previous history of respiratory illness and had not even had a cold in ten years. The day after he closed the sale, his asthma attacks became much worse when his mother told him angrily that “something will strike you.” He now became depressed and frequently protested that he was helpless. With psychiatric help, he began to see the connection between the asthma attacks and his mother’s “curse,”; he improved greatly. His psychiatrist saw him for a minute session at 5:00 P.M. on August 23, 1960, and found him in excellent physical and mental shape. At 5:30 he called his mother to tell her that he planned to reinvest in a new business without her help. She reminded him of her curse and told him to prepare for “dire results.” At 6:35 he was found gasping for breath, cynotic, and in coma. He died at 6:55. Mathis, J. L. (1964). A sophisticated version of voodoo death: Report of a case. Psychosomatic Medicine.,26:104-107.

The Wellcome Trust: Patients waiting to see the doctor, with figures representing their fears.


Engel, G. L. (1971). Sudden and rapid death during psychological stress, folklore or folk wisdom? Annuals of Internal Medicine, 74:771-782.

Sarno, John (2006). “The Divided Mind : The Epidemic of Mind-body Disorders. HarperCollins.

Scarf, M. (1973). Goodall and chimpanzees at Yale. Times Magazine, February 18.

Rosch, Paul & Pelletier, Ken (1987). Designing Worksite Stress Management Programs. Lawrence Murphy & Schoenborn (Eds.) Stress Management in Workplace Settings. Washington D. C: U.S. H.H.S.

Leadership Skill Development