Can Stress Make You Sick?

Can Stress Make You Sick?


Stress is your body’s response to challenging situations. During a stressful time, you may often experience both a physical and emotional reaction, commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. Your breathing and heart rate will increase, you may sweat more than normal, and your blood pressure may even increase. Most of the time, this is a normal response to occasional, short-term stressors.

But if your stress is chronic (long-term) or ongoing, it can actually make you sick. In fact, 60% to 80% of visits to a healthcare provider have an underlying stress-related issue contributing to the illness.

Stress can increase your risk of a range of conditions like digestive disorders and sleep issues to headaches and a weakened immune system. It can even lead to mental health conditions including depression and anxiety. Fortunately, implementing stress management strategies can slowly lower your stress levels and improve your physical and emotional well-being.

When you experience prolonged periods of stress, your risk of developing a physical health condition increases. Stress may affect your ability to fight infections and increase your risk of heart disease, among other physical effects.

Weakens the Immune System

Your immune system protects your body against diseases and infections by fighting off pathogens (harmful organisms like bacteria and viruses). But, this process can get disrupted if you’re experiencing chronic stress. Research shows that ongoing stress affects your body’s ability to control inflammation, increasing your risk of developing illnesses like the common cold, viral infections, and autoimmune disorders.

Affects Heart Health

Studies show that chronic stress can affect the function of your heart, increasing your risk of developing high blood pressure and a rapid heart rate. One study also found that experiencing stressful situations like social isolation, trauma, abuse, and stress in your work or relationships increases the risk of cardiac events like a heart attack.

Reduces Sleep Quality

Ongoing stress can make it difficult to get quality and restorative rest. One survey of 2,000 adults found that 43% of people who were stressed experienced insomnia and had difficulty getting adequate amounts of sleep. The survey showed that people who experienced higher perceived levels of stress slept for 6.2 hours per night compared to the average 7.1 hours per night for all participants.

Irritates the Digestive System

Stomachaches and stress seem to go hand in hand. Research shows that stress may be directly linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and increases the risk of abdominal pain, ulcers, acid reflux, and nausea. However, studies show that including stress reduction techniques can help improve stomach issues alongside other treatments you may need for any digestive disorders.

Worsens Pain

When you’re stressed, it’s not uncommon to feel like your whole body hurts. Chronic stress can often exacerbate back pain. Researchers suggest that healthcare providers who treat back pain should also evaluate a person’s stress levels as a part of the diagnostic process. Additionally, stress can trigger tension headaches and migraine, making it difficult to carry out daily functions due to the pain and discomfort these neurological conditions can cause.

Excess stress also plays a role in your emotional well-being, making it easier for your mind to feel pessimistic and experience negative emotions. However, chronic stress may also increase your risk of mental health conditions that may affect your quality of life even further. In extreme situations, stress can also manifest as physical symptoms.

Increases Anxiety

Experts estimate that 31% of people in the U.S. will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. For those who have an anxiety disorder, stress can worsen anxiety symptoms. Stress can make it easier to ruminate about your stressors and lower your ability to handle difficult situations.

Causes Agitation and Anger

When you are stressed, you may perceive situations and information differently than you normally would. Not only can this reduce your patience, but it also can make you more likely to become frustrated or irritated. Part of this is due to the effect stress can have on your ability to think clearly, manage emotions, and control impulses. When these abilities are impaired by something stressful, anger, agitation, and even aggression can develop.

Triggers Depressive Moods

Chronic stress is associated with a higher risk of developing mood disorders, such as depression. This is partly due to how stress affects the central nervous system and the chemicals released in response to a stressor. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for controlling executive functions, is a primary target of these stress hormones. When you experience too much stress, this part of your brain can undergo chemical changes that may lower your mood.

When you face a stressful situation, your brain signals an internal alarm that prompts your adrenal glands (located on your kidneys) to release a cascade of hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. This hormonal response is often known as your body’s fight-or-flight response.

As a result, the adrenaline surging through your body causes your heart to beat faster and your blood pressure to rise. You also may feel a sudden burst of energy or strength. Meanwhile, cortisol (a stress hormone) enhances your brain’s use of glucose (sugar). Once the stressful situation passes or you have used a relaxation technique to reduce stress, your body will return to its normal state.

But, if you experience chronic or long-term stress, cortisol levels in your body can remain high. When this happens, it promotes oxidative stress and inflammation, putting you at risk for several different health conditions. One potential complication of consistently high levels of cortisol is Cushing’s syndrome—a condition that can cause symptoms like weight gain, high blood sugar, and fatigue.

Fortunately, several stress management strategies exist to help you lower your stress levels. Experts recommend the following methods:

  • Deep breathing
  • Trying progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and relaxing your muscles)
  • Giving mindfulness a try
  • Engaging in meditation
  • Practicing yoga
  • Implementing positive self-talk
  • Journaling your thoughts and feelings
  • Spending time in nature
  • Exercising (e.g., going for a walk or lifting weights)
  • Enjoying time with your loved ones and with hobbies you like doing
  • Working with a therapist or mental health professional to learn how to navigate stress

If you find that the stress in your life is overwhelming and no longer manageable, it’s important to talk to either a healthcare provider or a mental health professional. They can determine what is going on, where you need assistance, and help develop a treatment plan. They also can provide tips on how to cope with and manage stress.

Likewise, if you have noticed symptoms of headaches, anxiety, or depression, it’s also a good idea to reach out to your provider about your experiences. Your stress levels may go down if you receive proper and timely treatment for these conditions.

Stress is your body’s response to a challenging problem or event. While some stress for your body is healthy, too much stress can affect your emotional and physical well-being and make you sick. Chronic stress can affect your immunity, digestive and heart health, sleep, and mood. Everyone experiences stress from time to time, but if you’re experiencing high stress that you are having difficulty managing, trying stress management techniques and reaching out to a mental health provider for support can improve your quality of life.

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