Can Stress Actually Make You Sick?

Nobody can lead an entirely worry-free life. And that’s OK. But can feelings of stress spiral into sickness?

Here’s the upside of stress: While, anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling, it’s often what prompts us to act. For example, if layoffs are happening at work and you’re worried that you’re next, anxiety may prompt you to update your resume and start looking for another job.

“Experiencing a manageable amount of anxiety and worry helps prepare us to face the challenges of daily living,” says psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD.

Mulling over a stressful situation can also contribute to the problem-solving process. You may spend time worrying about a conflict with your spouse only to find that this time spent “in your head” helps you see the problem from another perspective.

But worry becomes a problem when it starts affecting your ability to do the things you want or need to do, Dr. Borland says.

Stress and anxiety can prompt a wide range of problems including:

  • Poor sleep
  • Irritability
  • Poor work performance
  • Alcohol, drug or tobacco use
  • Poor dietary choices

Obviously, when worry starts keeping you up at night or leads you to self-soothe with food or alcohol, it can have a negative impact on your health.

But long-term worry can also create problems inside the body you may not even know about.

The role of cortisol

“During times of physical or emotional stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system activates,” Dr. Borland says.

This results in what’s called the fight-or-flight response: Your body prepares to either defend itself physically from a threat, or run away.

Even though most of our modern stressors don’t require such a physical response — you’re unlikely to punch your boss or flee the building when you’re facing your performance review — your body still responds this way.

In the moment, you may notice physiological reactions such as:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Muscle tension

One of the reasons for these physical reactions is the release of cortisol.

Cortisol is a hormone that signals your body to release glucose, a type of sugar that provides energy to your muscles. (Your muscles need glucose when they’re about to fight off or run from a predator.) Cortisol also inhibits insulin production and narrows arteries.

Once a threat passes, cortisol levels typically return to normal, and the body recovers from its effects.

But when stress is chronic, cortisol levels stay elevated. And in the long run, this can contribute to a host of problems, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and chronic gastrointestinal problems.

How to take control of your stress

The good news is that you can avoid health problems associated with chronic worry. All you have to do is learn to manage your stress.

Dr. Borland suggests the following steps to help with stress:

  • Exercise each day. Do some form of exercise each day, whether strength training, aerobic exercise, or walking your dog.
  • Meditate and breathe deeply. Repeat a calming mantra or visualize a serene setting.
  • Eat healthy. Focus on a balanced diet. Also, limit your caffeine and sugar intake.
  • Stay in contact with people who support you. Get support from your spouse or significant other, parents, siblings and friends.
  • Take part in fun social activities with family and friends. Smile, laugh and be as emotionally present as you can.
  • Seek calming, creative activities. Try painting or drawing, gardening or cooking.
  • Be grateful. Focus on areas of life for which you are appreciative. Pay attention to what makes you feel grateful.
  • Talk to your doctor and, if necessary, seek professional mental health treatment. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor, especially if you are coping with depression or anxiety.

Worry is a part of life for everyone. But by taking steps to proactively manage your stress, you can help make sure that your daily worries don’t end up hurting your health.

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