What Is Stress-Related Illness?
Stuck in High Gear
Is it possible to actually worry yourself sick? According to the Mayo Clinic, it is. Your body has a hard-wired self-defense system commonly known as “fight or flight.” The response is supposed to kick in when you encounter an immediate physical threat and turn off when the threat has passed.
However, your body can get stuck in the fight or flight mode, resulting in health problems. Click through the slideshow to learn more about stress-related illness and how to manage it.
The Sympathetic Nervous System Response
Your body’s fight or flight mechanism is a natural, life-saving system that is highly efficient and effective when you have to use your muscles quickly. However, the stress of modern life can often cause it to short circuit.
If you’re under constant—rather than short-lived or occasional—stress, the hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of the brain, triggers an alarm that stays on.
System Run Amok
The alarm from your hypothalamus catalyzes a series of nerve and hormonal signals. These signals cause your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline and cortisol play a key role in the body’s capacity for fight or flight, the sympathetic nervous system’s “take-action” response to stress.
When prolonged stress inhibits the body’s normal transition back to relaxation mode, the body becomes overexposed to cortisol and the other stress hormones.
Adrenaline and cortisol aren’t always bad. In fact, you need them under the right circumstances. Adrenaline increases heart rate and elevates blood pressure, muscle energy supplies, and respiration.
Cortisol increases glucose in the bloodstream, boosts the brain’s use of glucose, and increases the availability of substances necessary to repair tissues. Additionally, cortisol slows non-essential bodily functions so that as much energy as possible can be allocated to defending oneself against an immediate physical threat.
When It Works
When you encounter normal stressors, your body’s growth processes and your reproductive, digestive, and immune systems are temporarily suppressed. This surge and focus of energy would be useful if you were confronted by a bear, for example.
But when stress is derived from more common stressors such as a heavy workload and accumulating bills, the chronic fight or flight response isn’t your body’s best defense. This is why stress management is so important in modern life.
Relax, Sleep, and Digest
If your body is handling stress properly, the fight or flight reaction will be balanced by a relaxation response through the release of countering hormones.
During the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system, the body shifts back into equilibrium. It allows your heart rate and blood pressure to return to baseline levels and enables activities such as digestion and sleep to resume at their normal pace.
Prolonged stress puts the body in a continuous state of physical action readiness. When the body has no time to re-establish equilibrium, it becomes overworked and the immune system weakens, making you susceptible to sickness. Many essential bodily processes are disrupted and your risk of health problems increases.
Some common effects include:
Manage your stress throughout the day to avoid the potential for developing stress-related illnesses:
- Move. Release physical tension by standing up while you work, taking the stairs, or taking a five-minute walk.
- Listen. Bring headphones with you to listen to music at work, on your commute, or during your lunch break.
- Talk. Talking about a stressful problem helps release anxiety associated with it and may lead to possible resolutions.
Keep Stressors at a Minimum
If work and life obligations are keeping you busy to the point of stress-related illness, the thought of adding another event to your calendar—even a stress-reducing one—might increase your stress rather than regulate it.
It’s unlikely that life will ever be entirely stress-free. However, making a point to keep stress under control and taking time out when you need it can keep you healthier, more productive, and ultimately happier.