Is Stress Making Me Sick?

Everyone feels stressed out sometimes. If not properly managed, stress can be very damaging to our bodies and minds. This is such a common problem, I think it’s really important to discuss the medical symptoms of stress and how it can make you physically sick.  

By definition, stress is a tension or extra weight put on a material that causes it harm. Imagine you have a rope and stretch it across a canyon. You start putting people on the rope and they’re all hanging on. The more people you put on the line, the more tension it creates, until finally you put so many people on it that the whole thing collapses and falls into the canyon.

That’s what stress really is, whether it's stress on an object or stress on the body, and there are many similarities in what happens to a person’s body when they’re stressed.

What are Symptoms of Stress?

Symptoms of stress include a rapid heartbeat, sweating, or other signs that make a person realize that something is wrong. You get this little red flag going off in the body indicating there’s a problem, and it just doesn’t feel right.

That’s exactly what your body is designed to do and it’s the reason a person starts to experience symptoms of stress. Whenever the body or mind gets overloaded, it says “Help! I need something” and starts setting off warning signs. Panic and alarm buttons go off, often forcing a person to realize they must make changes if they don’t want to cause themselves physical harm.

Whenever you feel that, if you do have signs of stress, it’s best to stop what you’re doing and do a self assessment. Say to yourself, “Wait a minute. What’s my body trying to tell me?” If it turns out that it’s way too much stress causing the issue, then we have to address it.

How Does Stress Affect the Mind and Body?

When stressed out, a person’s mind operates on a fear mechanism. It instinctively thinks, “Do I need to run? Do I need to fight? What do I need to do?” The body has these panic buttons built in, so when it gets overloaded or overstressed, it starts pumping out adrenaline and neurohormones that say, “Wait, you’ve got to do something! Either fight or flight, but you can’t continue doing what you’re doing in this same environment.” That process makes the heart rate go up. You may begin to sweat. Many people can’t think straight or start to hyperventilate.

If it’s long-term stress, it can eventually turn into depression. You’ll start showing signs of being depressed, like not wanting to eat or eating too much, along with other depression symptoms.

These are the methods your body uses to warn you that you need to make a change. Sometimes, patients will make a great change and start to get healthier again by recognizing the problem and addressing it. Other times, people resort to bad behavior like abusing drugs, alcohol or overeating to cope.

You cannot continue on that same stressful path. Otherwise the body will start to crash, just like when you have too many people on the rope stretched across a canyon.

Can Stress be Good for You?

Some stress is normal and there is such a thing as positive stress, like the kind you feel when under a deadline or before a race and it improves your performance. I call it the life-stress curve, and it’s a graph that shows the more someone is stimulated, the better a person performs.

We all know when raising kids, that’s what we do, we create a small amount of tension to motivate. If we didn’t say to our children, “Get out of bed and go to school” they wouldn’t do it every day, so we threaten them, encourage them and coach them. The more we do this, the better they do on their own.

However, there comes a time when everybody falls off the life-stress curve. The more they’re stimulated, the more they start to struggle. They can’t sleep at night and can’t think well, and they end up getting sick, in some form or another. If they don’t stop the offending trigger that’s causing high levels of stress, the person can start to break down and experience illness.

It can happen very quickly, going from positive stress to a very negative, harmful stress. It’s important to know the difference, and again, a person has the innate ability to tell the difference. If you feel stimulated and are sleeping well, you’re feeling encouraged, getting fresh air and exercise, and you’re so happy with what you’re doing, those are positive stresses.

But, if it falls off the other way, where you’re tired, never feel rested, start to get depressed and you don’t want to do things, and your personality changes, those are signs of negative stress that indicate something must change.

There are many positive ways to manage and mitigate stress. As a direct primary care physician, I can take the time to talk over what’s causing you stress and help monitor any related physical symptoms you’re experiencing, well before you suffer long-term damage to your physical and mental health. Call or email me at Westfield Premier Physicians, so we can work together to eliminate the harmful effects of stress in your life.

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