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Can stress make you sick?

A healthy level of stress can help keep you motivated and ensure that you're getting things done. But too much stress can negatively impact your immune system and cause you to get sick more easily.

April 26, 2021

Stress is a normal part of life. Although stress is often viewed negatively, it's not always bad, and there are even some benefits to stress in small doses. But can stress make you sick? The answer is yes, but there are ways to manage stress before it becomes harmful to your health.

What is stress?

Stress is the body's response to challenges or demands. It can activate the "fight or flight" response that causes you to either flee or defend yourself in dangerous situations. Stressors can be one-time occurrences, or they can happen repeatedly over a long period of time.

A little stress can be a good thing. According to a 2018 study conducted by researchers from University of Otago in New Zealand, stress can be important for learning. The researchers argued that learning begins with a stressor when there is a difference between what is already known and what needs to be learned. It has also been proposed that transformative change cannot occur without stress or a crisis. These conditions can lead to "stress-related growth," which is when someone benefits from encountering a stressful situation.

Another 2018 study found that short-term stress can enhance immuno-protection and may also enhance mental and physical performance. The study noted that if short-term stress is experienced during vaccination or when someone is wounded, it can increase the efficacy of the vaccination or help the wound heal. It also argued that short-term stress can increase resistance to infection and cancer.

Can stress make you sick?

Chronic stress — stress that occurs consistently over a long period of time — can have a negative impact on a person's immune system and physical health.

If you are constantly under stress, you may experience physical symptoms such as chest pain, headaches, an upset stomach, trouble sleeping or high blood pressure. The fight or flight response brought on by stress triggers the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases your heart rate and breathing rate, providing your body with the energy and oxygen it needs to respond quickly to danger. Cortisol increases glucose in the bloodstream and lowers nonessential functions like digestion. When these functions are constantly elevated or suppressed due to chronic stress, the risk of facing serious health problems, such as heart attack, hypertension or stroke, increases.

According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress can also impair communication between the immune system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is what helps your body's systems maintain homeostasis — its normal state of relative stability. When communication between the immune system and the HPA axis is impaired, it can cause health issues such as chronic fatigue, diabetes, obesity and depression.

Tips to manage stress

Although stress affects everyone, it doesn't affect everyone in the same way. Some people are able to cope with and recover from stress quickly, while others may find it difficult to do so, especially if their stress is in response to a traumatic event. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the risk of stress having a negative effect on your health.

Exercise regularly

Multiple studies have shown that exercise can help reduce stress and depression, as well as improve cognitive function. As the Anxiety & Depression Association of America states, exercise and physical activity produce endorphins, which are chemicals that act as natural painkillers and can reduce stress. Acupuncture, deep breathing, massage and meditation can help your body produce endorphins.

Set goals

One way to manage stress is to set goals and priorities. You may feel stressed because you have a lot of different tasks that need to be completed, but deciding which tasks need your immediate attention can help you reduce stress. If you have too much on your plate, consider saying "no" to additional work or requests so you can avoid adding negative stress to your situation. Setting goals can also help you feel in control and optimistic, even when the work ahead of you seems challenging.

Change your self-talk

The way you talk to yourself can also affect your stress levels. Specifically, negative self-talk can increase stress, while positive self-talk can reduce stress. If you feel stressed out, try changing the way you talk to yourself. The American Heart Association gives a few examples of how to shift self-talk language for a more positive mindset:

  • "I hate it when this happens" can become "I know how to deal with this; I've done it before."
  • "I feel helpless and alone" can become "I can reach out and get help if I need it."

Stress is inevitable, but it doesn't have to take over your life. If you are able to recognize your stressors, you can take steps to reduce them and reframe your outlook for the better. If you need more guidance on how to manage stress, consider talking to your doctor.

April 26, 2021
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