Can stress make me sick and what can I do about it?

Were you a Seinfeld aficionado? If so, you know the pathos of George Costanza’s dad practicing mindfulness by screaming “Serenity Now!” with increasing urgency. I’ve felt that same ironic impulse when I stress about how stressed I am. But with this year just building upon the last’s (insert covid / lockdown / politics / zoom ) surreality, I think we could all do with a good look at what is probably the spirit animal of 2020.

Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash

No one will be surprised to hear that stress may be associated with an increased incidence of mood disorders, like a schizophrenic break, depression, or anxiety exacerbation.

But did you know that it induces clear changes in our body?  It affects signals from our hormones, neurotransmitters in our nervous system, and even changes in the chromosomes of our cell nucleus. 

How does stress do this?

Because our bodies are finely tuned to be on alert when there’s a stressful situation. We’re wired to watch out for the bear outside our door, even when that bear is actually a microscopic virus. 

Stress Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

Fight or flight kicks in, mediated by the catecholamines norepinephrine and epinephrine. The stress hormone cortisol is also increased by a pathway from the brain to the adrenal organs. These substances then cause a state of vigilance. Importantly, they also suppress non-essential systems, like growth, the GI tract, and reproduction. 

These pulses turn on parts of the amygdala, which can heighten fear and anger. They go to the liver to increase release of glucose. They stimulate immune cytokines, like IL-6 and TNF, which up inflammation. 

This is a good reaction to get away from the wild beast, but not when it’s chronic (ahem, the year that shall not be named for the 50th time in this article). 

In this case, the body starts getting increased wear and tear because it not sustainable to be on perpetual high alert. Or, it starts ignoring the stress signaling, which could be a problem if we aren’t able to effectively react to an acute stressor. 

In fact, chronic stress is associated with frequent colds, decreased bone quality, increased blood pressure and heart disease. The telomere ends of chromosomes may even be shortened, and these are correlated with our longevity. 

And the epigenetic impact means this may be passively ‘felt’ by a fetus in pregnancy. 

So what can be done about stress?

We can be more optimistic (expecting a good outcome) and resilient (recovering from a negative one). Interestingly, these mindsets can be taught

And they’re important. Multiple studies have examined this. Patients with higher optimism have improved outcomes in breast cancer, hemodialysis, spinal cord injury, bone marrow transplant, chronic pain, and coronary artery disease. Longitudinal studies show quality of life is improved, with patients reporting decreased pain or relationship problems plus increased energy, peace, and social interactions. An interesting study examined how the width of one of the arteries in the arm changed with emotion and found that there was a 35% decrease in blood flow while watching ‘Saving Private Ryan’. Contrast this to a 22% increase in flow with SNL. 

Happiness Photo by Caju Gomes on Unsplash

How to multiply happiness:

  • Practice reflection. 
    • Look at the negative experience and consider both the ways you handled it well and what part of your reaction could have been improved or changed. 
  • Find purpose and meaning. Then, direct your activities and time to reflect what you truly care about.
    • What values are important to you and who do you want to be? 
    • When do you feel alive?
    • How do how nurture your soul?
  • Feel gratitude. 
    • Write thank you letters. 
    • Pay it forward. 
  • Remember empathy. 
    • Being present with others’ problems, instead of trying to fix them. 
  • Laugh. 

How to increase resilience: 

  • Connect with others and find your tribe.
  • Empower yourself to change your outlook and thus reaction from insurmountable issues to you being in control.
  • Be confident and take decisive actions.
  • Practice self-care daily. Be in nature. Decrease clutter in your life. 
  • Continue self-discovery. 
  • Accept that change is a part of life. 
Resilience personified. Image by x ) on unsplash

This list may seem overwhelming, but take one recommendation and try to practice it daily for a few weeks (the time to form a habit). It will likely take minutes a day. I’m guilty of excusing myself by protesting how busy I am, but this is a practice that will change your foundation and may increase your lifespan. In sum, find joy, grit, yada yada yada, live longer! 

3 comments

  1. […] Chronic stress increases hormones in our bodies that lead to inflammation and elevations in blood pressure.  Take action to minimize the stress in your life and to practice mindfulness activities to reduce your stress level.  Check out this blog for more info with great tips on how to reduce your stress level: https://femalehealthcollective.com/can-stress-make-me-sick-and-what-can-i-do-about-it/ […]

  2. […] But herein lies the opportunity. Studies show that the egg undergoes its final readiness phase in the few months before it lines up for the ‘race to ovulation’, where it either is chosen to be released or, if not released, to dissolve away. This timeframe leading up to this race is when the effects of free radicals and inflammation may be counteracted by anti-oxidants and strategies to minimize inflammation. […]

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