Death by Overwork: How Stress is Killing You

stressThe American lifestyle is becoming increasingly busy and exhausting. The Japanese have a word for it: “karoshi”, meaning death by overwork. Americans tend to have less vacation days than people of other nations. Americans work nine full weeks (350 hours) longer than Western Europeans and have less paid vacation days. The French have a 35-hour work-week with leading worldwide hourly productivity [1]. Americans, on the other hand, often tend to put work above their personal lives and health. Rather than enjoying life, they work to accumulate material goods or personal satisfaction (and bragging rights). However, this “workaholic society” takes a toll on individuals. While working nonstop affects social life and personal relations, a serious concern is the effects it has on health. One of the primary effects of overworking is increased stress. The World Health Organization has found America to be the most anxious nation, with nearly one third of Americans suffering from anxiety in their lifetimes [2]. The effects of stress are extremely profound, and only through understanding the severity of these effects can we hope to mitigate them.

There are three main kinds of stress: acute, episodic acute, and chronic stress [3-4]. Acute stress is short-term and is the most common type of stress. It is generally caused by minor occurrences that people worry about in their day-to-day lives. While it may lower daily quality of life, it generally does not lead to long-term damage. An excess of acute stress can lead to episodic acute stress. This type of stress accompanies a stressful lifestyle rather than isolated occurrences: always rushing, being late, or constantly feeling pressured. People dealing with episodic acute stress may have personality traits that parallel their stressful lifestyle, including irritability and anxiousness. Finally, chronic stress, the most severe of the three, is an unrelenting, constant stress caused by a permanently stressful lifestyle or mentality, in which no end to the stressful circumstances is perceivable. This stress becomes overwhelming and consuming and can have dangerous consequences.

The human body is inherently conditioned to combat the stressors an individual may face. The body works to keep functionality normal on a day-to-day basis, and naturally adjusts when the individual encounters a perceived threat. This is known as the “fight-or-flight” stage and activates the sympathetic nervous system.  Through this activation, the hypothalamus of the brain sets off an alarm throughout the body, activating the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol [5]. These hormones alter physiological, psychological and emotional state through manipulation of centers in the brain controlling things like motivation and fear. Adrenaline increases the heart rate, blood pressure, and energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases glucose in the bloodstream. It also suppresses the digestive system, reproductive system, and growth processes so the body may focus resources on the stressful issues at hand. However, in the case of chronic stress, the body remains in this physiological “fight-or-flight” stage continuously, even though the danger may not be so imminent.

This extended stress state prevents the body from returning to normal functionality, which has numerous consequences. A few of the health risks of chronic stress include depression, digestive problems, heart disease, memory and concentration impairment, infertility, muscle spasms and high blood pressure [6]. The effects of chronic stress lead to a very unsatisfying life, and can play important roles in the development of severe diseases  or conditions.

Just as the effects of stress include a laundry list of negative consequences, there are many ways to combat stress. First, it is important to know how to maintain a balance in life. A work overload is a quick way to cause stress; as work builds up, stress becomes a part of everyday life that is quickly – and wrongly – accepted as an inevitable aspect of life. Properly managing work in order to gain a better sense of control is a critical step in combating stress. Next, having a good support group is essential to reducing stress levels. Having friends and family to lean on and spend time with helps alleviate stress. The University of Toronto found that often, an effective way to combat stress is as simple as employing distractions [7]. Being around friends is a great way to distract oneself from stressful work and can be an opportunity to relax. Additionally, while it may sound clichéd, having a positive outlook in life has been shown to decrease stress levels. Finally, while it is important to maintain one’s emotional health to combat stress, it is also important to take care of the physical body. Something as simple as taking short walks every day or drinking plenty of water can make a difference. A more common example of neglect: sleep is often sacrificed due to a busy lifestyle, but it is needed for the body to revitalize itself. Particularly when attempting to balance a full time job and family life, basic necessities start to lose priority, causing further damage to an individual.

Physical methods of combating stress like yoga and meditation have proved very helpful. Research has shown that yoga can impact gene expression in immune cells that help lead to long-term stability. A recent study built on this research discusses the concept of the “relaxation response”, named by Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard Medical School Professor and Body Mind Medical Institute founder. This response is thought to be the opposite of the “fight-or-flight” response discussed earlier. The response is achieved through relaxation practices such as yoga, prayer, meditation, and deep breathing exercises. The researchers took blood samples of adults in the study and discovered changes in the gene expression of energy metabolism, insulin, and stress-related pathways [8]. In essence, relaxation exercise had a physiological impact by calming the body, making it an effective way to combat stress.

While stress may take a serious toll on life and health, the methods that combat it are not only feasible, but also rewarding and enjoyable. It is crucial for the modern American to take, at the very least, small steps to combat stress. Examples of such methods could include yoga, meditation, or prayer for just a few minutes every day.


[1] Milosevic, T. 2011, Jan 08. “Workaholism in America: A European’s Perspective.” The Huffington Post.

[2] Schulte, B. 2014, Mar 02. “Workaholic USA.” The News Tribune. The Washington Post.

[3] “Fact Sheet on Stress.” National Institute of Mental Health. Science Writing, Press & Dissemination Branch.

[4] Miller, L.H., and A.D. Smith. “Stress: The Different Kinds of Stress.” American Psychological Association.

[5] 2013, July 11. “Stress Management.” Mayo Clinic.

[6] Bryant, C.W. “Physical Effects of Chronic Stress.” HowStuffWorks.

[7] Gregoire, C. 2013, July 11. “Feeling Stressed? ‘Taking Your Mind Off It’ Might Do The Trick, Study Finds.” The Huffington Post.

[8] Gregoire, C. 2013, May 05. “Relaxation Gene Response: What Yoga, Meditation And Other Stress-Busting Activities Do To The Body.” The Huffington Post.

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[1] Psychology at the University of Georgia.


Maisha Rahman is a junior majoring in Psychology with a minor in Arabic at Wayne State University, Detroit. She is a pre-medical student and was inspired to write this article after observing workaholic culture take a toll on her father’s health as he experienced his second heart attack in 2013. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.