December 1, 2020

Can Stress Actually Make You Sick?

How managing worry can boost your health

woman stressed out in hallway

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:

  • Anxiety.
  • Poor sleep.
  • Irritability.
  • Not being able to concentrate.
  • Trouble getting your work done.
  • Substance abuse problems.
  • Poor food choices.

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.

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The role of cortisol

“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:

  • Increased heart rate.
  • Rapid breathing.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Dizziness.
  • Headache.
  • Nausea.
  • Muscle tension.

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.

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But when stress is chronic, cortisol levels stay elevated. And in the long term, this can contribute to a host of problems, including diabetescardiovascular disease and chronic gastrointestinal problems such as irritable bowel syndrome.

How to take control of your stress

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:

  • Exercise each day. Do some form of exercise each day, whether strength training, aerobic exercise or walking your dog.
  • Meditate and breathe deeply. Repeat a calming mantra or visualize a serene setting.
  • Eat healthy. Focus on a balanced diet. Also, limit your caffeine and sugar intake, which can key you up and contribute to anxiety and insomnia.
  • Stay in contact with people who support you. Get support from your spouse or significant other, parents, siblings and friends.
  • Take part in fun (and socially distant) activities with family and friends. Smile, laugh and be as emotionally present as you can.
  • Seek calming, creative activities. Try painting or drawing, gardening or cooking.
  • Be grateful. Focus on areas of life for which you are appreciative. Pay attention to what makes you feel grateful.
  • Talk to your doctor and, if necessary, seek professional mental health treatment. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor, especially if you are coping with depression or anxiety.

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.​

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