How Your Stress Could Be Making You Sick

Back when humans lived in the wild and had to hunt and gather their food, stress served an essential purpose. An imminent tiger or wolf attack would spur a response in the body known as “fight or flight.” This is when multiple systems in the body produce a response—releasing hormones such as adrenaline, increasing breathing and heart rate, elevating glucose and fatty acid levels in the blood—to give the body and mind enough energy and stamina to fight or flee a dangerous situation. 

This still comes in handy sometimes, like braking quickly to avoid a car accident. But more often our bodies are responding to stressors that exist in everyday life, from a looming work deadline to concerns over the COVID-19. 

“The problem is, our body’s physiology has not evolved at the same speed as our environmental stressors,” says UNC Health psychologist Susan Girdler, PhD. “Our stressors are now chronic in the form of health, financial, work and relationship stress. We still mount the same stress response in our bodies as if we are dealing with an immediate physical stressor, but we are sitting absolutely still.”

For some people, the body’s stress response is activated over and over again, sometimes rarely returning to a normal, balanced state. 

“Multiple systems in the body have a response to stress,” Dr. Girdler says. “All of these responses interact and regulate one another. If one thing is out of whack or not well controlled, that throws off the balance and multiple things could happen as a result.” 

This is what experts call “allostatic load,” in which chronic stress puts wear and tear on the body and mind. Here’s what could be affected:

1. Your weight. 

Cortisol is one of the main hormones released during stress. It is in charge of a variety of things in your body, including appetite, blood pressure, blood sugar and how your body breaks down food. If your body’s cortisol response gets knocked off balance from too much stress and releases too little or too much cortisol, it can cause you to lose or gain weight.

2. Your heart. 

High stress levels elevate your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate. When these elevated levels persist for long periods, they could contribute to cardiovascular disease. 

There’s also an immune reaction to stress that causes an inflammatory response in the body. Too much inflammation can cause a number of negative effects, including heart disease.

3. Your aches, pains and risk of diabetes. 

“Our bodies manifest stress in different ways,” Dr. Girdler says. 

Some people carry the tension of stress in their neck and shoulder muscles. Others experience a tightness in the chest. Your whole body can feel the effects of stress, both in isolated pains, such as a headache, or full system interruptions, such as chronic disease.

“In a fight-or-flight situation, your stored energy is used to get you to safety,” Dr. Girdler says. “When you are chronically in this state, you continuously have elevated glucose and fatty acids in your system,” which can lead to diabetes.

Sometimes, people attempt to cope with stress by drinking more alcohol, eating unhealthy foods and skipping exercise, further increasing their risk of illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. 

4. Your digestion.

The brain-gut connection has been well documented, and it’s why mental or emotional stress can cause gastrointestinal issues. 

Your body’s enteric nervous system governs digestion and has much to do with the way you handle distressing emotions. Short-term stress can upset your stomach or cause diarrhea or vomiting. Long-term stress can lead to chronic issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome. 

5. Your sleep. 

Especially these days, stressful events or situations can stick in your head and heart. They can consume your thoughts to the point that it interferes with your ability to sleep. Whether stress manifests itself in your dreams or keeps you from going to sleep in the first place, it prevents your body and mind from getting the rejuvenating sleep that is so necessary for your whole health. 

6. Your happiness.

Having too much or not enough stress hormones for a long period affects your emotions and mood. 

Stress can cause you to feel irritation or anger at things that don’t usually cause you to feel that way. It can make you lose interest in things you once enjoyed and lead to anxiety or depression. Stress also can interfere with and damage your relationships with people you love. 

What You Can Do

You have the ability to calm your body’s responses to the modern, daily stressors you encounter. Developing coping skills is a great first step in preventing your body from being in a constant stress-reaction state.

“Putting stressors into perspective with mindfulness-based interventions can prevent your body from having the stress reaction as often,” Dr. Girdler says. “Essentially, it’s about accepting what you cannot control.”

Self-care should be a priority as well. Maintain a healthy diet, allow yourself to get enough sleep and incorporate exercise into your routine. You should also give yourself something to look forward to that will give you a break from stress, whether it’s a virtual game night with friends, blocking off time to read a book or simply going for a walk outside. The Mindfulness Center at UNC is offering free online classes.

Most importantly: Talk about what you’re feeling. This can happen with family and friends, or you can find a therapist for in-person or virtual visits. 

Do you think stress could be affecting your health? Talk to your doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.