Stress – Can it Make You Ill?

Stress – Can it Make You Ill?
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Physical changes brought on by acute stress can help you function at your best in a challenging environment.

After all, your sympathetic nervous system, sometimes referred to as the “fight or flight” response, is activated by stress.

The Cleveland Clinic mentions that “…your sympathetic nervous system activates to speed your heart rate, to deliver more blood to areas of the body needing more oxygen or other responses to help you get out of danger.”

That being said, stress can still make you ill if it is introduced unnecessarily or on a regular basis.

According to Dr. Jessi Gold, there are a number of physical and mental symptoms connected to chronic stress.

“Chronic stress is something that shows up both in the brain and body and illustrates the association between the two,” he says.

Here are some symptoms you should pay attention to GI distress, headaches, fatigue, insomnia, tooth grinding, trouble focusing, and forgetfulness.

Gold says that “Sometimes the person is more irritable with, or avoidant of other people and that may make them stop responding to texts or cancel plans, for example. They may also turn to alcohol or drug use in order to cope.”

It can get so bad that it may make you puke!

When the “fight or flight” reaction is active, your body directs more blood to places that require more oxygen, such as your sprinting muscles.

The University of Chicago Health says that this can “negatively impact gut motility or the manner in which our intestines and stomachs squeeze and move the waste through the body. Furthermore, stress can affect the delicate balance of bacteria in the gut, causing GI discomfort.”

In addition, stress can even alter your brain chemistry!

The term “plasticity” describes a change in the structure or function of the brain.

Neurons, the primary brain cells in charge of rapid electrical transmission, are highly “plastic.”

Perhaps this isn’t a terrible thing, however.

Dr. Cheryl Conrad explains that “The brain responds to stress and all sorts  of hormones in really plastic ways. Cortisol changes the manner in whcih neurons respond to one another, the receptors that are expressed and when stress becomes chronic, neurons alter their function. This isn’t unique to stress — ovarian hormones alter neurons too.”

She continues by saying that this change doesn’t necessarily have a “bad” result. If long-term stress makes you form coping mechanisms, your body is employing a survival strategy. It’s advantageous.

So what can you do if the stress you’ve been experiencing is making you physically sick?

Gold advises that “As hard as it is to do, trying to find time, even 5 minutes for yourself and doing something you like, can make a difference. What you do for that time is up to you, but some people find things like mindfulness, exercise and journaling helpful for stress reduction. It is also important that things like routine, sleep and eating are emphasized. This includes learning to have stricter boundaries between work and home and saying no, or setting limits, more often.”

Any physical or mental symptoms you may be experiencing should also be discussed with your doctor because they might also be signs of underlying health issues.


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Katherine is just getting her start as a journalist. She attended a technical school while still in high school where she learned a variety of skills, from photography to nutrition. Her enthusiasm for both natural and human sciences is real so she particularly enjoys covering topics on medicine and the environment.

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