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.
Let’s break down how it affects each of your body’s systems:
Musculoskeletal: When the body is stressed, muscles tense up and then release their tension when the stress passes. Chronic stress causes the muscles in the body to be in a near constant state of tension, which can cause things like migraine headaches.
Respiratory: Stress and strong emotions can cause shortness of breath and rapid breathing. This can be more dangerous for people with pre-existing respiratory diseases like asthma or COPD. Some studies show that an acute stressor, such as the death of a loved one, can even trigger asthma attacks.
Cardiovascular: Chronic stress can contribute to long-term problems for the heart and blood vessels. The persistent increase in heart rate, stress hormones and blood pressure can lead to hypertension and increase your risk for heart attack and stroke
Endocrine: During times of stress, our adrenal glands increase the production of cortisol, often called the “stress hormone.” Cortisol increases the level of energy fuel available. But chronic stress creates a miscommunication in this system, which can cause diabetes, obesity and immune disorders. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol can even have a negative impact on the developing brain, changing the way children learn and manage their emotions.
Gastrointestinal: Stress is associated with changes in gut bacteria which in turn can influence mood. Early life stress can change the development of the nervous system as well as how the body reacts to stress. These changes can increase the risk for gut diseases. Also, stress can lead to an unhealthy diet which can cause obesity and heart disease. Contrary to popular belief, stress does not increase acid production in the stomach, nor causes stomach ulcers. Ulcers are caused by a bacterial infection. When stressed though, ulcers may be more painful.
Sexuality and reproductive system: Chronic stress is exhausting for both the body and mind. It’s not unusual to lose your desire when you’re under constant stress. While short-term stress may cause men to produce more of the male hormone testosterone, this effect doesn’t last. If stress continues for a long time, a man’s testosterone levels can begin to drop. This can interfere with sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. Chronic stress may also increase risk of infection for male reproductive organs like the prostate and testes. For women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle. It can lead to irregular, heavier, or more painful periods. Chronic stress can also magnify the physical symptoms of menopause.
Immune system: Stress stimulates the immune system, which can be a plus for immediate situations. This stimulation can help you avoid infections and heal wounds. But over time, stress hormones will weaken your immune system and reduce your body’s response to foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections. Stress can also increase the time it takes you to recover from an illness or injury.
These recent discoveries about the effects of stress on physical health shouldn’t stress you out. We now understand much more about effective strategies for managing stress. Those include:
— Maintaining a healthy social support network
— Engaging in regular physical exercise
— Getting an adequate amount of sleep each night
— Working with a psychologist to develop relaxation, breathing, and other cognitive behavioral strategies to enhance our resilience
— Finding occasions to laugh, sing or even engaging in creative activities can increase your capacity to effectively manage high levels of stress and its effects
— Mindfulness activities and positive reflection involving gratitude about the things in your life that are helpful and good can also provide a measure of support during episodes of stress
Also, stress is one of the most common topics on our Hello Idaho segments, which you can find links to on Optum Idaho’s Facebook page.
Dr. Dennis Woody is a pediatric neuropsychologist providing support to Optum Idaho’s medical team for care management and has been with the team since 2013. Before coming to Optum, Dr. Woody practiced in Idaho for 27 years with an emphasis in consultation for children and adolescents with neurodevelopmental, neurological and behavioral health concerns.