Can stress make you sick? We asked doctors for the truth
Most of us have experienced stress in our daily lives. With work and other personal responsibilities, it seems inevitable. Because April is Stress Awareness Month, it’s helpful to not only be aware of how you can manage stress, but to also be aware of why you should do so in the first place.
As you may have heard, stress is known for being the silent killer that can affect you both mentally and emotionally. If you’ve ever been so overwhelmed to the point that you can’t think straight, you know what that’s like. But can stress make you sick? According to Dr. Amy Serin, PhD., neuropsychologist and founder of the The Serin Center, absolutely.
How stress can make you sick:
It’s important to know that stress is actually responsible for about 80% of all chronic diseases, according to Dr. Serin.
"When stressed, an individual's body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode, which releases a complex mix of hormones and chemicals in order to prepare the body for physical action," she tells us. "Some of these physical involuntary reactions include restricting blood flow to muscles and shutting down some necessary bodily functions, such as digestion. While this is helpful in dangerous situations, the challenge is when the body goes into this mode during inappropriate times. This results in inflammation and fatigue."
Since blood flow getsrestricted, things like your brain function can become limited, which explains why many of us can’t think clearly during stressful times. According to The American Institute of Stress, it can also cause your pupils to dilate, your bowels to slow down, an increase in blood pressure, and muscle tension. Stress can even cause your heart to beat harder and faster, which can be damaging to the organ if it gets too overworked.
“During stressful situations, cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’) is released throughout the body, and as a result of the increased hormones, the immune response can be weakened,” Dr. Katherine Miao, Medical Director at CityMD tells HelloGiggles. “With a diminished immune response, people are less able to fight off all types of infections, including the common cold and flu.”
So although stress doesn’t directly cause you to get the flu, it can make catching it much easier. That’s why it is so important to be mindful of how you respond to stressful situations.
How you can recover:
Stress can cause you to become physically ill. The good news is, you can recover. “The best way to recover from stress-related illnesses is to first remove the underlying stressor,” Dr. Miao says. While many of us deal with stress in our lives, it’s important to acknowledge when it happens. Knowing when you’re overwhelmed or ill can help you determine when it’s time to give your body a chance to slow down and recuperate.
“This is just as important as resting and making sure to get proper nutrients,” she says. “Not reducing or removing the stressor can mean that it takes a person longer to recover.” In other words, first recognize you have a problem and go from there.
Managing it by practicing self-care is also key. It may seem cliché, but according to her, there is evidence supporting the role of exercise, particularly yoga, in decreasing your overall stress levels. “Even 10 or 15 minutes a day is better than nothing and will have some benefit,” Dr. Miao says. If you don’t have time to go to the gym, a brisk walk around the block when you’re feeling overwhelmed can be beneficial as well.
It’s also important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and making sure you’re well-rested. “With all of the distractions in modern society, we tend to skimp on sleep,” she says. “Take a break and unplug from your phone and recharge your own batteries! A minimum of eight hours of sleep every day will help cut down both fatigue and stress, which can go hand in hand.”
Stress can do a number on your health. But if you find ways to manage it, you can limit the negative physical effects it can have on your body.