How Stress Makes You Sick
How Stress Affects the Body
When you feel stressed, your adrenal gland releases hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol. They travel through the bloodstream affecting your heart and blood vessels in several ways.
Adrenaline increases your heart rate and raises blood pressure. Over time, this can cause hypertension, a condition where your blood pressure is chronically elevated.
Sudden, severe stress can even cause a condition called Broken Heart Syndrome. The symptoms mimic a heart attack, causing chest tightness and shortness of breath. It’s thought that a sudden surge of adrenaline disrupts the pumping action of the heart. While it usually resolves in a few weeks, rarely, it can cause long-term heart damage and death.
Cortisol can also affect the lining of the blood vessels, causing them not to work properly. This can lead to plaque building up in the arteries. The plague is made up of fatty substances that can break loose and travel to the brain, causing a stroke. Plaque build-up can also block the arteries, causing a heart attack.
When stress strikes, the muscles tense up. This is called muscle guarding; it’s the body’s way of anticipating and protecting itself from pain and injury. Chronic stress can create a state of constant guardedness. When muscles are tense over a long period of time, it can trigger migraines, tension headaches, stiff neck, and back pain.
We’re all familiar with the feeling of butterflies in the stomach in stressful situations. This is caused by the brain sending signals to the intestinal nervous system, which makes the digestive muscles contract. It doesn’t cause harm when it’s an occasional occurrence. But if your stomach is in knots of stress regularly, it can disrupt your digestion.
Over time, stress can cause a serious condition called IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and severe heartburn. Stress can also disturb your gut’s natural flora or healthy bacteria. This can negatively affect your immune system, digestion, and overall health.
In the last 20 years, the number of overweight and obese Filipinos has doubled, with 36.6% of adults in the Philippines affected. Stress could be a factor in the nation’s expanding waistline. The stress hormone cortisol increases appetite and makes your body crave high-calorie comfort foods. And it doesn’t take a lot of stress-eating to gain weight. Just 100 extra calories a day adds about ten pounds of fat in a year. In fact, stress has been associated with obesity. A study in the journal Obesity found higher levels of cortisol among people who are obese.
The problem with fat isn’t just an expanding waistline. Cortisol can cause you to store visceral fat (or deep belly fat) which often leads to metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a collection of disorders that include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance. Together, these conditions increase your risk of chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes.
Researchers have found a link between women’s daily stress levels and their chances of becoming pregnant. In one study, women with higher stress enzymes present in their saliva took 29% longer to conceive. According to Dr. Alice Domar, an infertility specialist and researcher, “Your body is smart, it knows that periods of stress aren’t good times to have a baby.”
Small bursts of stress can be beneficial to the immune system, preparing the body for invaders and acting as an anti-inflammatory. But chronic stress decreases the number of white blood cells, making you more vulnerable to illness and slower to heal. Ongoing stress can also lead to chronic inflammation, which exhausts the immune system, leaving it too weak to protect you.
Shorter Life Span
If you want to live a long life you need to avoid chronic stress. Several studies have linked stress to shorter telomeres. Telomeres are the tiny caps at the end of chromosomes, which protect against DNA damage and disease. When a telomere becomes too short, the cell can no longer divide and it dies. This hastens the aging process and decreases life span.
Just how many years could you lose? Researchers at the Finnish Institute of Health say 2.8 years. By comparison, smoking reduces life expectancy by 6.8 years and diabetes by 6.5 years.
Impact on Mental health
Mental illness is the third most common disability in the Philippines. While stress itself is not a mental illness, it can significantly increase your risk of developing one, including anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
Roughly 6 million Filipinos suffer from an anxiety disorder or depression. A major life event, or the buildup of several stressful events over time, is a significant risk factor for an anxiety disorder. For example, a death in the family can lead to excessive anxiety. Alternatively, ongoing stressors, such as work stress, financial woes, and relationship problems can compound over time, potentially triggering an anxiety disorder.
Research suggests the relationship between stress and depression is bidirectional. This means stress can cause depression and vice versa.
For example, the lack of motivation common to depression can lead to stress, as you miss work deadlines, show up late to events, or fail to finish chores.
The reasons stress contributes to depression are less clear. Researchers are still investigating the exact mechanism. But mental health surveys have shown that as stress increases, depression rates also increase.
We’ve all had the occasional, restless night due to worry. But chronic stress can trigger chronic sleeplessness or insomnia. Whatsmore, not getting enough sleep makes you less able to weather daily stressors, creating a vicious cycle.
Prevention and Treatment of Stress
The Philippines is one of the world’s most stressed nations, with over half of Filipinos describing themselves as very stressed. However, some simple lifestyle changes can help you manage stress and avoid its toxic effects.
Exercise regularly for stress management. Daily exercise produces stress-relieving endorphins that improve your physical and mental health.
Use your support system. Reach out to others. Join an online support group. Talk to friends and family. Or, consider talking to a mental health professional.
Engage in activities you enjoy. Setting aside time to do things you enjoy helps you relax and increases overall feelings of well-being.
Have a cup of tea for stress-relief. In a recent study, people who drank 4 cups of tea a day had lower levels of cortisol. It’s unclear whether it’s the act of quietly sitting with your tea, or something in the tea leaves themselves. Either way, the effects are demonstrable.
Practice relaxation techniques. Meditation, yoga, prayer, deep breathing, and mindfulness are all equally proven techniques to reduce stress. So, choose the technique that works for you.
Manage and prioritize tasks. Consider a system where you address the most important/dreaded tasks first and gradually work your way through to the easier ones. As Mark Twain put it, “Eat the frog first.” You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment vs. stress and dread over looming tasks.
Know your triggers. Identify the situations that make your stress skyrocket — these are your triggers. When you know what your triggers are, you can avoid these situations or have a coping strategy in hand when you encounter them.
How Much Stress Is Normal?
Money problems, traffic, a heavy workload —stress is an experience common to us all. But you may need to seek medical advice if you experience the following:
- You feel unable to cope with the pressure and demands of your life.
- You have thoughts of harming yourself.
- You have developed coping strategies but they aren’t relieving your symptoms.
- Seek medical attention right away if you feel any of these physical symptoms: chest pain, shortness of breath, pain burning into your shoulders and arms, dizziness, or nauseous.