Is it possible to worry yourself sick? According to the Mayo Clinic, it is. Your body has a hard-wired self-defense system commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. The response is supposed to kick in when you encounter an immediate physical threat and turn off when the threat passes.
However, your body can get stuck in fight-or flight-mode because of stress, and this can cause health problems.
Your body’s fight-or-flight mechanism is a natural, life-saving system that’s highly efficient and effective when you have to use your muscles quickly. However, the stress of modern life can cause it to short circuit.
If you’re under constant stress, rather than short-lived or occasional stress, the hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, triggers an alarm that stays on.
The alarm from your hypothalamus starts a series of signals that cause your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline and cortisol help your body take action during the fight-or-flight response.
When prolonged stress inhibits your body to transition back to relaxation mode, your body becomes overexposed to cortisol and other stress hormones.
Adrenaline and cortisol aren’t always bad, and you need them under the right circumstances. Adrenaline increases:
- heart rate
- blood pressure
- muscle energy supplies
- respiration rate
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 nonessential bodily functions so that the maximum amount of energy can be allocated to defending yourself against an immediate physical threat.
When you encounter stressors, your body’s growth processes and your reproductive, digestive, and immune systems are temporarily suppressed. This surge and focus of energy is useful if a bear confronts you, for example.
But when stress is derived from more common stressors such as a heavy workload and accumulating bills, a continued fight-or-flight response isn’t your body’s best defense. This is why stress management is important in modern life.
If your body is handling stress properly, a relaxation response will follow the fight-or-flight response. This occurs due to a release of countering hormones.
During the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system, your 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 your body in a continuous state readiness for physical action. When your body has no time to re-establish equilibrium, it becomes overworked and your 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:
- memory impairment
- skin conditions, such as eczema
- difficulty sleeping
- heart disease
- digestive problems
- autoimmune diseases
Do the following to help manage your stress throughout the day and to avoid the potential for developing stress-related illnesses:
- Release physical tension by standing up while you work, taking the stairs, or taking a five-minute walk.
- Bring headphones to listen to music at work, on your commute, or during your lunch break.
- Talk about a stressful problem. It will help release anxiety associated with it and may lead to a resolution.
If work and life obligations are keeping you busy to the point of developing a stress-related illness, the thought of adding another event to your calendar might increase your stress rather than lower it. This may be the case even if the event is one that reduces stress.
It’s unlikely that life will ever be entirely stress-free, so make a point to keep your stress under control and take time out when you need it to stay healthy, productive, and happy.