Keep Psychological Distress From Killing You

So you think having the blues, being sad, nervous, depressed or anxious only derail you in the immediate moment. You’re wrong. A new meta-analysis carried out by British researchers shows clearly that the greater your psychological distress, the higher your odds of death from heart disease. And if you think your low-level symptoms are no big deal, think again. They increase your risk, too! But there is something you can (and should) do about it.

The Study

Decades of clinical studies have shown a direct correlation between psychological distress (or the symptoms of depression and anxiety) and an elevated risk of premature death, cardiovascular disease, and potentially all cancers. A team of British researchers set out to find the depth of these associations by designing an individual participant meta-analysis of 10 large prospective cohort studies from the Health Survey for England. Their meta-analysis used specific statistical methods to find meaning in the results of various independent studies, with the goal of quantifying a link between even seemingly harmless subclinical or low-level symptoms of anxiety and depression and cause-specific mortality in a large scale population.

From 1994 to 2004, over 68,000 people from a general British population of adults ages 35 and older were studied. They were free of cardiovascular (heart) disease and of any cancers and were living in private households. During this time, 11 independent, cross-sectional studies with identical methodologies took place on an annual basis. Consenting study members (75,936 [89.1 percent]) were linked to National Health Service mortality data up to February, 2008.

Scary Findings

According to the study, “Causes of death recorded on death certificates were coded using the international classification of diseases… We saw a significant association, across the full range of severity, between psychological distress and all-cause mortality.”

Here are the main associations:

  • Substantially symptomatic patients were at a 29 percent increased risk of cardiovascular disease death.
  • Cancer death was not associated with low levels of psychological distress in the same way as cardiovascular disease death.
  • Death from external causes was also associated with psychological distress across the full range of scores.
  • Subclinically symptomatic patients were at a 29 percent increased risk of death from external causes.

The main finding of this study was an association between psychological distress and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and external causes across the full range of distress, even in people who would not usually come to the attention of mental health services. These associations remained after adjustment for age, sex, current occupational social class, body mass index, systolic blood pressure, physical activity, smoking, alcohol consumption and diabetes.

The Big Issue

The findings of this meta-analysis are quite illuminating. Tom Russ, the study’s lead researcher and clinical research fellow at the Alzheimer Scotland Dementia Research Center of the University of Edinburgh, asserts, “The fact that an increased risk of mortality was evident, even at low levels of psychological distress, should prompt research into whether treatment of these very common, minor symptoms can reduce this increased risk of death.”

I would bet that most of us think of our psychological health as something we want to achieve and maintain. And when we’re “out of sorts” emotionally, struggling with sadness, anxiety or depression — even event related and not necessarily chronic — it is a burden to our well-being. But who knew disruption in well-being was a factor in increasing our risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and ultimately premature death? Even our most highly trained psychologists and physicians did not know this. But now we do, so it’s time to do something about it.

The big issue is: What can we do?

The mainstays of prescription antidepressants have been shown to help those suffering from depression. However, the side effects are too dangerous and include an even greater risk of heart disease. These drugs, then, are not the answer. They confound the issue.

Some Solutions

Cognitive behavioral therapy is another tool psychologists use in therapy sessions with patients to help them change how they think about situations and react to stress. This is a viable tool for those in therapy to help prevent premature death and disease associated with psychological issues. However, the British research showed that even mild, pre-clinical episodes of anxiety and depression (those in which people do not seek therapy), are also responsible for “mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and external causes across the full range of distress.”

This means that those of us who experience a daily low-level of anxiety or depression yet feel it is “no big deal,” need to rethink it and seek help. This help can be in the form of seeking a therapist for cognitive behavioral therapy sessions. If non-traditional approaches work better for you, then excellent programs include the Sedona Method, EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing).

I personally advocate EFT for immediate symptomatic relief from anxiety or depression because it is something you can do on your own, at any time. But for long term success, “clearing” the perceptions of the past with EMDR therapy stops the chronic behaviors and responses from certain stressors coming into the present. The Sedona Method also helps you “let go” of past perceptions limiting your present thoughts and behaviors. Both EMDR and Sedona require a trained therapist to administer. Information on these effective methods can be found with a simple online search. I urge you to look into them and find the one that best resonates with you.


The most important thing learned from this new meta-analysis is that our daily psychological state is not something to be ashamed of and hidden, and is not something to “work through” or ignore. If you are suffering from depression and anxiety, or even have low-level symptoms of these psychological issues, please acknowledge them and do something to remedy the situation. If you don’t, you will be at risk of premature death from psychological distress-induced heart disease and maybe even cancer. That is, you will be causing your own potentially deadly health issues as a result of not doing something about your problem. This is preventable, but you must take the lead and seek help or embrace the self-directed methods named above.


“Association between psychological distress and mortality: individual participant pooled analysis of 10 prospective cohort studies.”


Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.