Does Stress Make You Sick?
We all deal with stress from time to time. And in many ways, a little stress can be healthy.
In fact, acute bouts of stress—that is, stress that lasts anywhere from a few minutes to several hours—can promote stronger immune functioning, according to research from Firdaus Dhabhar, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.
But when stress is prolonged or chronic—meaning it sticks around for weeks, months, or even years—it can lead to a “dysregulation” or negative changes to your immune system and other biological functions, Dhabhar says.
What kinds of changes? Chronic stress suppresses your protective immunity—your body’s ability to defend itself against diseases and pathogens. It also negatively impacts cell function and contributes to low-grade inflammation, says Suzanne Segerstrom, Ph.D., a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kentucky.
As a result, “it could make one susceptible to illness,” Dhabhar adds. So in a very literal way, stress can make you sick.
Stress affects us all. You may notice symptoms of stress when disciplining your kids, during busy times at work, when managing your finances, or when coping with a challenging relationship. Stress is everywhere. And while a little stress is OK — some stress is actually beneficial — too much stress can wear you down and make you sick, both mentally and physically.
The first step to controlling stress is to know the symptoms of stress. But recognizing stress symptoms may be harder than you think. Most of us are so used to being stressed, we often don't know we are stressed until we are at the breaking point.
Stress can make you sick. I don’t mean stress can make you feel sick; I mean stress can actually make you physically sick, potentially very sick. Our bodies are well equipped to handle stress for brief periods or in small doses, but when that stress becomes long-term or chronic, it can have serious effects on your body. We’ve seen much more of this during the pandemic. According to the American Institute of Stress, 77 percent of people experience stress that affects their physical health.
Stress symptoms may be affecting your health, even though you might not realize it. You may think illness is to blame for that irritating headache, your frequent insomnia or your decreased productivity at work. But stress may actually be the cause.
Indeed, stress symptoms can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behaviour. Being able to recognize common stress symptoms can help you manage them. Stress that's left unchecked can contribute to many health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
What Is Stress?
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines stress as “emotional, physical or cognitive tension resulting from inadequate levels of energy or satisfaction. Stressful events cause an increase in the concentration of adrenaline and other hormones that make us feel alert and ready for action.”
When we have too much stress, we feel the physical symptoms of stress, like irritability, headaches, muscle tension and insomnia. Sometimes, these physical symptoms can show up immediately, but sometimes stress can build up in your body and you don't realize it until it gets too extreme.
Stress is how your body responds to emotional or physical demands placed on it. It often kicks in when you are faced with life-threatening stress, like war, natural disasters, a serious medical condition, or facing a frightening situation.
As we become adults, we learn the warning signs of stress, like losing our appetite, having difficulty concentrating, and being uncomfortable emotionally or physically. We learn to “space out” from our thoughts by not getting too involved in our thoughts, and looking away from a stressful situation. We also learn to seek distraction, such as checking our phones, doing mindless tasks, or even engaging in unhealthy habits like overeating or not exercising.
First, understand what stress actually is. According to the Mayo Clinic, stress is a physical response to psychological or emotional demands. It may be physical, such as exercise, sleep deprivation, or physical stressors like shovelling snow or dealing with an accident.
It may be psychological, such as anxiety or worry, or social, such as being an introvert or being around a lot of people. Whatever the source of your stress, stress is a necessary response to something. It can be a signal to get your body and brain working together in order to deal with the demands of the moment. But stress can also wear you down and make you sick.
This is why knowing the symptoms of stress is so important
Stress is that uncomfortable feeling you get when you're not getting enough sleep, you're not eating as healthy as you should, you're having too many worries, you're not exercising enough, you feel that you have lost control of something, you don't get enough joy or relaxation, you feel you're not growing or changing, you feel that you're not making a difference in your life, and your life lacks meaning.
In other words, you don't feel good enough, satisfied, or supported, or you're not at peace.
Signs Of Stress
We are stress machines. Our adrenal glands release cortisol (also known as cortisol that helps the body regulate stress) into our bloodstream, which heightens our bodies' ability to react to sudden stress. These reactions — such as elevated heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and elevated blood sugar — can cause many physical symptoms.
The most obvious signs of stress include muscle tension or pain, headaches, exhaustion, sadness, anxiety, and anger. These are typical, tell-tale signs that something is wrong. But there are other warning signs to look for too, such as:
- Hyperventilating or chest pain,
- Feeling hot or cold,
- Tingling or numbness,
- Fatigue or lack of energy,
- Loss of appetite,
- Trouble concentrating,
- Anger, and
- Shakiness or dizziness.
Another indicator of stress is that one or more of your five senses is altered. When your attention is narrowed to only the moment you are in, you may not realize you are stressed. This can be observed when we are stressed because we simply cannot “feel” stress. However, other people may notice changes in your behaviour or the way you handle things, such as an overall reduction in sleep or energy, weight changes, difficulty concentrating, and poor concentration and memory.
Moreover, constantly feeling like you have to do more than you can, may also be an indication. Is it possible that all you do is try to do more than you should? Stressed people tend to perform their duties as efficiently as possible, without worrying about the process, time, or effect on others.
If you find any of these signs to be happening more often, you need to figure out why. Sometimes, we try to push these signs aside, and ignore them, thinking they'll go away on their own. But ignoring the problem doesn't make it go away. You can't fix a problem if you don't know the cause.
Things can be stressful even when there are no conflicts, pressure, or deadlines. When stress rises, your nervous system may take a dive, sending signals to your brain and body. These telltale symptoms could be masking stress. But when your nervous system is stressed, it's likely to cause more problems than it's solving.
Knowing when you are stressed is crucial. When you know you are stressed, you can do things to improve your situation. The first step to dealing with stress is to identify your stress triggers and symptoms.
How Does Stress Make You Sick?
When your body senses stress, it releases the stress hormone, cortisol, into your bloodstream. Cortisol stops your heart and lowers blood pressure, which then triggers a release of adrenaline. That rush of adrenaline sends an electric pulse into your body, which quickly speeds up your heart rate. This is when you may feel like you're going to die. Your blood pressure also goes up and you might feel nauseous.
Studies show that stress causes all sorts of health problems, from high blood pressure to insomnia and headaches. And there are studies that also show that chronic stress is linked to the development of various diseases, including obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
Treating symptoms of stress is one thing, but trying to prevent disease is an entirely different story. A group of Harvard researchers led by Dr. Lawrence Newport found that a state of low stress can actually make the heart stronger.
Why Is Stress Bad For Your Heart?
Heart attacks, at least, are one thing that stress can kill. Exercise may be great for your heart, but a great deal of stress triggers a strong urge to rest.
When you are stressed, the stress hormones your body produces to cope with the situation often become counterproductive. For example, when your body is stressed out, you might overeat or have a sugar crash. You might take up smoking, drink more alcohol or even engage in some risky behaviour. You may overeat because you're stressed out and then put on a few extra pounds.
If you are experiencing physical symptoms, such as joint pain, fatigue, stomach aches, and shortness of breath, or if you experience psychological symptoms such as anxiety and irritability, you are not alone. Your body may be trying to tell you that something in your life is wrong.
The good news is that when you are able to recognize the symptoms of stress, you can use these tips to better cope and create balance.
Common Illnesses Caused By Stress
Many health problems can be the result of being stressed. The most serious health problems that result from being stressed are anemia, coronary artery disease, heart attacks, stress-related respiratory disorders and gastrointestinal conditions. These and many other diseases may lead to death if not detected and treated.
The most common diseases caused by stress are cardiac, pulmonary, and gastrointestinal disorders.
Stress isn't the only risk factor for the chronic disease — but it is a risk factor. Our bodies produce cortisol when we are stressed — a hormone that stimulates the muscles in our face and neck increases blood pressure and tightens the blood vessels.
Excess stress hormones can lead to several chronic illnesses: Chronic insomnia, Diabetes, Heart disease, Inflammatory bowel disease, Depression, Problems with fertility, and Fluoride poisoning.
In some cases, stress can lead to disorders like anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, making stress even more of a risk factor. And there's a special form of PTSD that can afflict workers who are exposed to extreme stress in a workplace setting.
What To Do To Reduce Stress
Too much stress can trigger adrenal fatigue, a condition where your body can no longer respond properly to the stressors you are experiencing. The good news is that stress can be reduced. Just like people who abuse alcohol, drugs or food, those who are chronically stressed suffer from chronic fatigue.
Know the signs of stress. Often, the first sign of stress is making mistakes at work, taking on more responsibility than you can handle, or losing your cool at home. You might notice:
- a feeling of dread,
- your heart starts racing,
- you start sweating,
- you're short of breath,
- you get anxious or angry,
- you can't focus or sleep,
- you're irritable and agitated,
- you feel numb or numbness in your hands and feet,
- you can't concentrate or make decisions,
- you start making more mistakes at work or
- making your kids work harder than they can.
Learn to recognize stressors, including situations that seem minor at the time but that can build up and become major triggers.
Have realistic expectations. Many people feel guilty when they admit to feeling stressed. But how else will you recognize stress if you aren't feeling it?
Instead of only saying to yourself, “I am stressed,” try, “I am really struggling with work-life balance, and I have a lot on my plate.
Take a step back and breathe. Take a moment to take a deep breath and slow down your heart rate. All stress can be reduced by taking a moment to take care of yourself.
Pay attention to what you are feeling. By being present, you can think about what is happening to you at that moment. Do not take your stress home with you. If you feel anger, frustration or fatigue, take a moment to take a deep breath and observe the emotion. Then, tell yourself “I can control this emotion, and I can choose how I respond to it.”
Accept your emotions. Your emotions are a reaction to something happening. Feel it and act on it rationally.
What To Eat To Lessen Stress
When you're feeling stressed, your body releases a surge of stress hormones. We all experience these stress hormones every day, but the stress of a tense moment can intensify and stress hormones affect your entire body. These stress hormones can:
- make you tired,
- impair your immune system,
- increase blood pressure,
- trigger your adrenal glands to produce even more stress hormones,
- add to your risk for heart disease and cancer,
- damage your blood vessels,
- place you at risk for injury,
- inflammation your joints, or
- add to the risk of diabetes and depression.
In addition to stress hormones, cortisol (the “stress hormone”) is produced in your adrenal glands when you're under stress.
Once you know you have a stressful situation in your life, it's important to immediately start lowering your stress levels. But since food is such a huge part of our lives, we may not realize how our diet affects our stress levels. We know that when we eat healthy foods, we feel better.
Moreover, stay hydrated. Hydration can help us stay physically and mentally healthy. When we aren't getting enough water, we begin to feel tired and run down. Water also helps our body's ability to process sugar and feel full.
How To Preserve A Healthy Mind
Research shows that people suffering from stress tend to exhibit three traits: distress, disruption and uncertainty. The distress trait means we tend to feel frustrated, even when things are going well. Downtime and rest do little to help restore the stress chemical in our brains, nor does doing anything that makes us happy. If we want to ease our mind, we must do something to switch on “switch off” mode.
Here are a few tips to help you maintain a healthy mind:
Read. Spend time each day reading for pleasure. You'll be amazed at how simply changing your reading habits can lower your stress levels. All it takes is five minutes a day for 15 days. You'll be amazed at how much calmer you'll be if you read for just 15 minutes.
Learn. Learning helps you relax, and stress helps you learn. A stressed mind tends to work on irrational or automatic thoughts. Learning means accessing a more logical part of the brain. An increase in intelligence and self-confidence are two of the benefits you may reap from learning.
How To Avoid Stressors
If you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed or depleted, it's time to take a step back, take a deep breath, and realize you are in control of your life.
Know when stress is helping you grow. Think of the times in your life when you felt the most alive and fulfilled. If you have experienced these life-changing moments, you may have experienced stress at that moment. However, you need to be mindful of this: When you are growing, you need the stress. Without it, you would stagnate and die. Your body cannot grow and change without the stressful stimulus that comes with growth. As a result, you need the challenges that come with growth.
Avoid putting yourself in the position of having to deal with that trigger by: adjusting your schedule to eliminate conflict and stress., taking action in advance, setting limits, reminding yourself that little stress can actually be beneficial, and changing your mindset.
The best way to reduce stress is to change your mindset. Think about the little stressors you have every day, especially when it seems like too much. Put a big “okay” on it. Being able to “cool down” when the stress is over is actually something you should be proud of. So take a deep breath and say: “Okay, that was kind of a stressful day. But it is done.”
Seek Health Professionals When It Is Serious
Stress affects you physically. We all feel stressed to some degree or another.
If you or someone you love is struggling with symptoms of stress, seek help from a health care professional.
When you're not able to control your stress symptoms, it's time to seek medical help. Your primary care physician can help you manage your stress and identify a treatment plan. Some people are so used to stress, they don't recognize their symptoms when they show up.
Even if you recognize these symptoms, it's okay to seek medical help. If you are experiencing chronic stress and your doctor diagnoses you with a condition that causes your symptoms, a therapist may be helpful.
Stress is normal, and having it doesn't make you a bad person. However, it can be managed by being aware of the warning signs and recognizing when your stress level is out of control. It's also important to remember that if you think your stress is getting out of control, talk with a therapist or your health care provider about stress management.
Stress is common, and we all experience it from time to time. You can learn to avoid or manage stress, but you'll need to follow some rules to do so.
- If you have a job where you must interact with people, make sure to get enough sleep and exercise on a regular basis.
- When you start feeling stressed, instead of trying to fight it off, take a few minutes to take a few deep breaths. Take your time and think about what is stressing you.
- Do something kind for someone else. If you can't find time to do something kind for someone else, start a list of things you can do to help people around you.
- Develop a good work-life balance by managing your time well.
I trust you enjoyed this article about Does Stress Make You Sick. Please stay tuned for more blog posts to come shortly.
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