Can stress make you sick?
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.
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.
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.
Founded in 1968, Nashville-based HCA Healthcare is one of the nation’s leading providers of healthcare services with 186 hospitals and approximately 2,000 ambulatory sites of care, including surgery centers, freestanding ERs, urgent care centers and physician clinics, in 20 states and the United Kingdom.
HCA Healthcare’s Behavioral Health Services is one of the nation’s largest acute care psychiatric providers. Behavioral health patients have emerged as one of our nation’s fastest growing health populations, and board certified psychiatrists are in high demand to meet the healthcare needs of these patients. With one in every four people afflicted by diagnosable mental health or substance abuse disorders each year, mental illness doesn’t just affect the patient – it affects us all.
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About HCA Healthcare
HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 182 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.
As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.