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.
Stress is, unfortunately, an unavoidable fact of life. And since coronavirus has become a part of our everyday life, you may feel more stressed than ever before. But can you actually get sick from stress?
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The short answer is yes.
Stress sickness can contribute to many health issues, including:
Clinical psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD, says a certain amount of stress can help to keep you on your toes. “Experiencing a manageable amount of anxiety and worry helps prepare us to face the challenges of daily living,” Dr. Borland says.
What’s more, mulling over a stressful situation can also help you to find a solution to the problem. 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. 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.
Long-term worry can also create problems inside your body that 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.
In the moment, you may notice physiological reactions such as:
One of the reasons for these physical responses 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.
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. Cortisol also stifles insulin production and narrows arteries. Once a threat passes, cortisol levels typically return to normal, and your body recovers from its effects.
But when stress is chronic, cortisol levels stay elevated. And in the long term, this can contribute to a host of problems, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and chronic gastrointestinal problems such as irritable bowel syndrome.
The good news is that you can avoid health problems associated with chronic worry by learning how to manage your stress.
Dr. Borland suggests the following steps to help you cope with stress:
Worry is a part of life for everyone, and this past year has been extra stressful for many. 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.