Can Stress Make You Sick?
We all battle stress in our everyday life. It is normal and unavoidable. In fact, stress is the body’s way of getting you ready to combat a threatening situation. It is essential in helping you adapt to dangerous situations and protecting yourself.
As with many things in life, the problem with stress lies in balancing or managing it. There’s no way around stress. We all have to deal with it at some level. The question is do we allow ourselves to succumb to its ill-effects or do we deal with what may be its underlying cause?
Stress is capable of impacting almost every area of our life. It can wreak havoc on our emotions, behaviours, and thinking ability. But its effects on the body’s physical health are only now starting to be discussed.
Understanding what happens to the Body when you Stress
When you stress your body releases a hormone called Cortisol as part of its fight-or-flight mechanism. Cortisol gives your body a natural energy boost and by nature shifts your body’s focus to essential functions that will help you in your emergency.
In doing this, it temporarily disables nonessential functions such as the immune, digestive, and reproductive system function, and brain function that deals with mood adjustment, motivation, and fear.
During extended periods of chronic stress, your body is producing cortisol when in fact there is no fight-or-flight situation to deal with. Cortisol thus builds up and poses serious health risks.
The Short-term Ill-effects of Stress
The overexposure to stress hormones, such as cortisol, can disrupt the healthy functioning of your body's processes. In the short-term, it can lead to forgetfulness, poor judgment, an inability to focus, and overly pessimistic thoughts. It can leave you feeling easily agitated or irritable, overwhelmed or like you are losing control. As a result, you may distance yourself from people, or feel depressed.
In the physical form, stress can cause headaches, low energy levels, changes in appetite or an upset stomach, body aches, chest pain, insomnia, a low libido, and nervousness.
To cope with the above, individuals often resort to alcohol, drugs, and smoking, or can exhibit nervous or avoidant behaviour such as nail biting, pacing, and procrastination.
The Long-term Ill-effects of Stress
In the long term, stress is even more dangerous as it can lead to and worsen several serious ailments.
Mental Health IssuesStress causes elevated cortisol levels, and reduced secretion of several mood-enhancing chemicals, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. This can lead to mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and personality disorders.
Cardiovascular DiseaseStress raises your blood pressure and your cholesterol levels, making you more susceptible to cardiovascular disease. This includes heart attacks and hypertension.
Gastrointestinal Problems, Obesity, and Eating DisordersCortisol temporarily disables digestive function. Therefore, prolonged exposure can cause a range of gastrointestinal problems such as abdominal pain, nausea, indigestion, diarrhoea, constipation, and gastritis. It can also cause and aggravate irritable bowel syndrome, and raise your risk of developing peptic ulcers.
Further, high cortisol levels can lead to weight gain by influencing factors such as sleep quality and eating habits. Stress can cause you to binge on unhealthy foods such as sugar and empty carbohydrates.
Allergies, Skin, and Hair ProblemsStress is linked to the onset and worsening of asthma and allergies. This is because Histamine, a chemical involved with immune response and that causes allergic reactions, is released by your body in response to stress. Prolonged elevated levels of stress can thus cause or worsen allergic reactions.
Additionally, it can cause skin symptoms such as rashes or hives, can lead to an asthma attack or even permanent hair loss.
Reduced Immune System FunctionChronic mental stress has been shown to reduce immune system function and inhibit the body’s inflammatory responses. Such inflammation is linked to the development and progression of many diseases. Individuals who are continuously stressed are thus more likely to develop colds and other infections upon exposure to germs.
Stress is a part of life. But, it can be managed. It is crucial to keep a control on stress and its symptoms. Exercising and practising yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises, listening to calming music, getting good sleep, cuddling a pet, and cutting back on obligations for some relax time are all known to help with stress management.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, talk to a family member or a friend. Consult a doctor if you still feel helpless. After all, keeping tabs on your stress can save your life.