Stress Causes Health Problems, Which Then Cause More Stress : Shots - Health News People under stress are more likely to have health problems, according to a poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. That's true for caregivers, too.

Stress Causes Health Problems, Which Then Cause More Stress

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Many people understand that stress is bad for your health - turns out that bad health also causes a lot of stress.

MONTAGNE: We've been reporting on the findings of a survey on stress. It's an NPR poll conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. Many people under stress have something in common - poor health and disability.

INSKEEP: And it's not just those whose own health is poor. We have, today, the story of how one man's health problems are causing enormous stress for his family. Richard Knox reports.

RICHARD KNOX, BYLINE: Staci Moritz and her family in Oregon had a good life.

STACI MORITZ: Things were going great and life was pretty idyllic.

KNOX: ...Until about five years ago, then Staci's marriage floundered. She and her husband separated, then she got laid off from her job. And the next day, the biggest blow fell.

MORITZ: About eight o'clock at night, I received a call from one of the hospitals here in Portland.

KNOX: Her husband was in the emergency room, terribly injured. Cycling home from work, he'd been hit by a car and dragged underneath for 30 feet. He suffered profound brain injury that put him in a coma for three weeks. He didn't die, but for a long time, it wasn't clear if he would ever recover.

MORITZ: His functional ability at the time was that of an infant. He couldn't speak. He lay in a bed surrounded by netting so he couldn't fall out - you know, in diapers.

KNOX: And then one day, he turned a corner.

MORITZ: I walked into the room with our children, and he cried. And he mouthed the words I love you. And, I mean, it was just overwhelming. You know, he recognized them. That was the significance of it. He knew who we were. And so that gave us a little bit of hope.

KNOX: He continued to improve, but when he didn't need any hospital care any longer, he couldn't take care of himself. Doctors said he'd have to go to a nursing home.

MORITZ: I couldn't permit that.

KNOX: So even though they were separated, Staci took him home to help him recover.

MORITZ: It was the right thing to do for him and for my children.

KNOX: That decision would mean years of unrelenting stress for Staci Moritz. Suddenly she not only ran the household and was the sole functioning parent for three rambunctious boys, but she cared for her husband, got him to medical appointments, paid all the bills - even after he moved into his own apartment. And there were financial stresses too.

MORITZ: We could no longer pay the mortgage, and we lost our home of many years to foreclosure. It just feels like assault after assault after assault after assault.

KNOX: And while she was coping with all this, Staci says friends and family backed away.

MORITZ: The thing that's hard to accept is the lack of contact - people saying hey, how are you? How are the kids doing? You know, do you want to talk? The isolation compounds that relentless stress.

KNOX: Over the past four years, that stress has undermined her health. She's got a new full-time job as a human services manager, but she says she's maxed out on her sick leave.

MORITZ: My own well-being has taken a backseat just because everyone around me needs so much.

KNOX: While Staci Moritz's story is especially tragic, our poll results show that millions of Americans are suffering from toxic stress with many of the same features. More than half of those reporting a great deal of stress say they have to juggle too many responsibilities and have problems with finances. More than 4 in 10 say health problems of family members are a factor. Yet 82 percent of people say a doctor, nurse or therapist didn't talk to them about the need to reduce stress for the sake of their health. Even among those with current high levels of stress, most say healthcare providers didn't discuss the dangers.

ALEXANDRA DRANE: The reality in the health care system is we don't ask.

KNOX: That's Alexandra Drane, a Boston healthcare consultant, who's analyzed the responses of millions of health plan members asked about stresses. Drane advises healthcare providers to ask patients about stress. But she says most say they just don't have time or the resources to help patients address the causes.

DRANE: I've actually had doctors full-on laugh at me when I talk about this - at the same time that they will acknowledge I know these things are true. And I know these things are why real people are not taking good care of themselves and why they're sicker.

KNOX: But Drane thinks that will eventually change. Her work shows that patients suffering from toxic stress cost the system a lot more.

DRANE: People who were experiencing these life challenges, in the end, were costing five times as much. They were 2.6 times as likely to have diabetes, 2.9 times as likely to have back pain. They were 5 times as likely to be having mental health issues.

KNOX: Meanwhile, Staci and her husband, now working part-time and riding his bike again, have gotten a divorce. And she realizes she needs to turn over much of his care to professionals.

MORITZ: I have to go on living. I've done everything I can at this point. And I did it mostly alone.

KNOX: It's for her own health she says and for the good of her three young boys. For NPR News, I'm Richard Knox.

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