Can Stress Actually Make You Sick?
Are you worrying yourself sick? Learn more about how to manage your stress to help protect your body from the effects of chronic worry.
Nobody can lead an entirely worry-free life. And that’s OK. But can feelings of stress spiral into sickness?
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Here’s the upside of stress: While anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling, it’s often what prompts us to act. For example, if layoffs are happening at work and you’re worried that you’re next, anxiety may prompt you to update your resume and start looking for another job.
“Experiencing a manageable amount of anxiety and worry helps prepare us to face the challenges of daily living,” says psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD.
Mulling over a stressful situation can also contribute to the problem-solving process. You may spend time worrying about a conflict with your spouse only to find that this time spent “in your head” helps you see the problem from another perspective.
But worry becomes a problem when it starts affecting your ability to do the things you want or need to do, Dr. Borland says.
Stress and anxiety can prompt a wide range of problems including:
Obviously, when worry starts keeping you up at night or leads you to self-soothe with food or alcohol, it can have a negative impact on your health.
But long-term worry can also create problems inside the body you may not even know about.
“During times of physical or emotional stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system activates,” Dr. Borland says.
This results in what’s called the fight-or-flight response: Your body prepares to either defend itself physically from a threat, or run away.
Even though most of our modern stressors don’t require such a physical response — you’re unlikely to punch your boss or flee the building when you’re facing your performance review — your body still responds this way.
In the moment, you may notice physiological reactions such as:
One of the reasons for these physical reactions is the release of cortisol.
Cortisol is a hormone that signals your body to release glucose, a type of sugar that provides energy to your muscles. (Your muscles need glucose when they’re about to fight off or run from a predator.) Cortisol also inhibits insulin production and narrows arteries.
Once a threat passes, cortisol levels typically return to normal, and the body recovers from its effects.
But when stress is chronic, cortisol levels stay elevated. And in the long run, this can contribute to a host of problems, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and chronic gastrointestinal problems.
The good news is that you can avoid health problems associated with chronic worry. All you have to do is learn to manage your stress.
Dr. Borland suggests the following steps to help with stress:
Worry is a part of life for everyone. But by taking steps to proactively manage your stress, you can help make sure that your daily worries don’t end up hurting your health.