Stress is not just a mental concept; it also has a huge effect on your physical wellbeing.
In short doses, acute stress can help you become focused and give you an actual rush of adrenaline that energizes your body to get the work done. Unfortunately, most of us are unable to let go of stress once the initial panic is gone. That’s when stress causes a negative impact on your physical health. Can stress make you sick? Prolonged or chronic stress can be a big contributing factor to physical health problems.
Think back to a time where you dealt with long-term stress; maybe it occurred during an ongoing project at work or was the result of a toxic relationship. Now, try to remember how your body felt. Many of us are already familiar with the ways stress can affect our health. Sometimes the symptoms are small like an upset stomach, tight muscles or fatigue. Sometimes the symptoms are worse like nausea, migraines, diarrhea, acne breakouts or hair loss.
The mind-body connection is strong. It can affect your immune system, causing you to become more susceptible to the flu or cold. It throws your body off balance and can also affect your digestive system. With prolonged exposure to stress, your body is just not running as well as it should be.
This article will outline the kinds of health changes you can expect from too much stress, as well as give you some ways to prevent getting sick.
STRESS LEVELS ARE RISING
If you feel more stressed out than you have in the past, you’re not alone. Increased exposure to news featuring the latest frightening incident is having a huge impact on the physical and mental health of the nation. This year, people are more stressed about the state of the nation than ever before.
That’s not the only thing stressing people out. Stress levels have risen three percent in the past year alone. Many people feel like they are not equipped to handle the stress of family responsibilities and money issues. Twenty-four percent of adults are now reporting levels of extreme stress (8 or 9 on a scale of 1 to 10) compared to 18 percent just two years ago.
Those who live in cities are also significantly more stressed than those who live in the suburbs or in rural areas. Lack of downtime or time away from constant bad news makes it difficult for people to recover from stressful events.
Becoming aware of your stress levels is an important step in maintaining a healthy physical state. Though stress levels are higher than ever, there are more ways to manage stress and learn about the repercussions of it.
THE EFFECTS OF STRESS ON YOUR HEALTH
There are dozens of ways in which stress can impact your body. In fact, as a medical community, we likely do not yet know all of the effects stress can have on us.
Holistic health practitioners estimate that stress can impact us in more ways that we have research to support. Along with external stressors, our beliefs about the world around us and ourselves can cause significant stress.
In a study of more than 28,000 individuals, Health Psychology found that higher levels of stress were often connected to a worsened quality of health.
When we are stressed, our bodies release the hormones adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine into our systems. They are meant to create a number of reactions in the body, including rapid breathing and heart rate and taking blood away from digestive functions.
This stress response triggers what is known as the fight or flight response and releases those stress hormones that once helped our ancestors flee from very real and present danger. Unfortunately, when your body is in this mode for too long, which is what happens when we let the stress build up, it can lead to a number of disorders in the nervous, digestive and immune systems.
Being exposed to stress hormones for too long can mess with the internal balance of your body, leaving it feeling overworked and unable to fight against outside pathogens.
Stress Affects Your Digestive System
The digestive system is often thought of as the second brain, as it has its own specialized nervous system. The enteric nervous system and the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system make up the autonomic nervous system. The latter is responsible for regulating life-sustaining functions like blood pressure, body temperature, breathing and heartbeat.
The enteric nervous system relies on the same kinds of cells found in the brain and spinal cord. Stress releases hormones that affect these cells. This connection often causes digestive issues such as bloating, intestinal pain and discomfort.
As many as 70 percent of people are affected by gastrointestinal issues at some point in their lives. However, many individuals do report seeing relief with their stomach issues after going in to see a psychologist to learn stress management techniques.
Stress has been linked to causing, or worsening, the following gastrointestinal disorders:
- Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (Irritable Bowel Syndrome, constipation and functional dyspepsia)
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
- Peptic Ulcer Disease
Other than the stress hormones being released, your body is also unable to properly digest food. Much of the usual resources such as blood flow are being used to prepare the body for battle against the stressor. Additionally, your stress causes increased tension in the muscle groups in your abdomen. Unreleased, this tension squeezes organs in unusual ways for a long period of time which creates stomach pain.
Stress Causes Memory Loss & Decreased Focus
Have you ever felt too stressed to think clearly? You’re not alone. Pressure makes it difficult for your brain to access areas responsible for logical thinking and decision making.
Excess levels of cortisol can cause the hippocampus to shrink, which is a part of the brain responsible for memory and spatial navigation. Constant stress can keep the fight or flight mode on, which makes it difficult to be logical when it comes to decision making. Stress can literally change the synapses in your brain, impacting learning and memory making, and even contributing to developing stress-related mental disorders like PTSD.
The hippocampus is extremely susceptible to stress hormones, making it more likely to cause issues for the state of your memory. If you find it hard to remember names, frequently forget about appointments you’ve made or have a hard time focusing at work or school, chances are good that your stress levels are too high.
Stress Compromises Your Immune System
On top of the immediate mental and physical discomfort, stress also has a negative impact on your internal systems. This includes your immune system, which is a big reason why you might have gotten sick during periods of high stress. Sometimes, you might even get sick after the stressful period. In this case, your body is unable to bounce back from the havoc that stress created.
Persistent stress leaves your body vulnerable to disease and illness. Stress can enlarge your adrenal gland and shrink your lymph nodes, which are important in filtering out harmful germs. It also causes inflammatory reactions in your body, as your systems are expecting to fight off invaders that never arrive. When your body is constantly trying to fight off inflammation, it is left with fewer resources with which to fight infections and illness. Thus, you’re more susceptible to catching whatever bug is going around.
Studies have also shown that once particularly intense periods of stress have lessened, the body is more prone to pain flare-ups and a sudden appearance of symptoms.
Once your body has been flooded with an abundance of stress hormones, it can be very difficult to de-escalate the tension and invoke the relaxation response. This can include a decrease in dopamine levels, immune system suppression and an increase in perception of pain. So even if the stressful period is over, your body is still reeling from all of the effects of stress. Your body’s ability to defend itself against a common cold virus is compromised for the time being.
How to Combat Stress and Stay Healthy
After hearing about all of the ways stress can impact your health, you might feel intimidated or discouraged. However, there are many healthy ways to lessen the amount of stress in your life.
The best thing you can do is to take a preventative approach. If you stop stress levels from becoming extreme, you’re less likely to go through a painful and rapid decompression that has negative effects on your body.
Take on Fewer Responsibilities
If you feel like you don’t have enough time to meet all of your obligations, chances are you need to learn how to tell people no. You only have so much time in a day, and it’s not going to help anyone if you run yourself into the ground.
Seek Out Exercise and Movement
Exercise is a great way to release pent-up stress and use physical activity to limber up tense muscles. Exercise increases the number of endorphins in your brain. If you’re experiencing extreme stress, more intense levels of exercise can help you deal with it. However, you don’t need to have a hard workout in order to enjoy the benefits of exercise. Even just walking for 30 minutes a day can lower your stress levels.
Find Relaxation Throughout Your Day
There are many ways to relax and unwind. Taking even just a few minutes each day for relaxation can help prevent stress build up and make you more capable of dealing with stressors that come with everyday life. Take the time to listen to a calming song or change your environment. Something like a short power nap can also help you feel refreshed and refocused for your tasks. Find more activities to help you relax with this short guide on relieving stress.
Eat Nourishing Foods
Many people tend to turn to comfort foods when they are stressed. These include foods that are high in sugar, salt, starch and empty calories. Most comfort foods don’t provide the nutrients our bodies need to continue functioning at top performance. Eating foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients will help give your body the energy it needs to deal with increased demands without putting you through the blood sugar crash that comes from junk food.
Use Spire to Change Your Breathing Habits
Breathing is a great way to help reduce your stress. It’s also one of the easiest and cheapest ways to go about dealing with the worries you face every day. Spire was designed to help you become more aware of your breathing patterns, giving you a heads up when you’ve been tense for too long. One wearer found that being aware of his breathing patterns made it easier for him to stay calm throughout the day.
Check out the science behind Spire here.