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Stress and Early-Onset Chronic Illness

Written by Casey Hersch, MSW, LCSW
March 2020 issue
Published at Taste for Life Magazine

This story originally appeared on Taste for Life

For most of us, when we think about the age range of 24 to 39, certain defining characteristics come to mind. This is a time when people consider pursuing an advanced degree, decide where they want to live, buy a home, make career choices, and explore relationships and parenthood. These are normal milestones of adulthood.

Nearly 73 million people in the United States are Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996). When we think about Millennials, we think YOUNG!

What we might not think about is chronic illness. Yet, reports from 2017 health insurance data show that “over half (54 percent) of Millennials reported having been diagnosed with at least one chronic illness.”

Before we talk about chronic illness, we need to talk about stress.

The Link Between Stress and Illness

Stress and illness are intricately connected. When there is chronic stress, illness often develops. Chronic stress, especially without a balance of healthy outlets, can compromise the immune system, making people more susceptible to illness. Everything from fatigue, insomnia, headaches, and digestive problems to anxiety and depression are influenced by stress.

Stress in Millennials

As part of the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey, Millennials ranked as having the highest stress levels of all generations (older adults, Baby Boomers, and Gen Xers).

Their most commonly cited source of stress is the economy. Other stressors include mass shootings, the current political environment, and concern over the country’s future.

Add in work-related stress, social media, constant technology use, and a decrease in face-to-face connections with others, and it isn’t hard to see how stress levels can compound quickly.

Chronic Illness in Millennials

According to Blue Cross Blue Shield data, the major decline in health for Millennials begins at age 27. Reports also show double-digit increases in certain health conditions. Major depression ranked number one followed by substance use disorder. Other conditions included Crohn's disease/ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, and type II diabetes.

Millennial and illness Hi ResTherapy and Millennials

On a more promising note, the Stress in America survey showed a significant increase in the belief that licensed mental health professionals can help with stress management. So while Millennials are stressed, this openness to receiving help can ease the negative effects.

How to Manage Stress and Protect Your Health

What can you do if you are struggling with stress and having physical and/or emotional symptoms or if you know someone who is?

Whether it is relaxing in the sun, reading a book, painting, or something else that suits you, healthy outlets reduce the toxic stress load and boost the immune system. It is easy to get overwhelmed with life, but remember, there is help available and it is possible to reclaim and maintain health.

  • Build a Support System and Seek Help

The first step is recognizing you are not alone. There is no reason to suffer in silence. Help is available.

Next, talk to someone. Talk to your primary care physician or doctor, or make an appointment to see a licensed mental health therapist. Many county and community clinics offer sliding scale services. If you have insurance, your carrier can give you referrals. Employers often have employee assistance programs that can offer support for life- and work-related issues.

  • Take Care of Your Body

In addition to building a support system, don’t forget the basics. These actions make a difference in health and stress management.

  • Eating well
  • Exercising regularly
  • Getting enough sleep

Find Balance

Balance life with things you enjoy.

Consider spending time in nature, a spa day, grounding yourself while walking barefoot on the beach, gardening, arts/crafts, moving more, volunteering, enjoying a pet, music/dance, or trying something new.

Don't forget to take deep breaths! 

Unplug and Limit Screen Time

Don’t sleep with your phone in your bedroom. Shut it off at least one hour before you plan to go to sleep.


“The Health of Millennials,” Blue Cross Blue Shield,, 4/24/19
“Millennials Besieged by Chronic Illness,” Children’s Health Defense Team,, 5/14/19
“Stress in America,” American Psychological Association,, 11/1/17
“Why Millennials are the Most Stressed Generation,”