Is Stress Making You Sick?

*Originally published 3/31/20

The current pandemic situation has brought a lot of fear and worry with it, so I thought today I would talk a little bit about stress and what it does to your body. I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely feeling the stress right now! With our wedding just 67 days away, our hopes of having the wedding we dreamed of are hanging by a thread. We’ve already had to cancel our bachelor/bachelorette parties, our honeymoon (to Spain), and it’s not looking great for the wedding itself. I think every day about all of the money and planning that has led up to the wedding day, and how devastated I’ll be if we have to cancel everything. On top of that I’m worrying about getting COVID-19, or someone I know getting it, especially my high risk grandparents or my pregnant sister. It’s a scary time, but I’m doing my best to stay calm and keep my stress under control.

Stress is a normal reaction for our bodies- it is a survival technique built in to protect us when threats arise. When our bodies sense a threat, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) triggers the “fight or flight” response, which mobilizes us to take action and avoid danger.

There are 3 stages of stress:

The Alarm Stage
When your body senses a threat, your SNS is activated. Your brain tells your adrenal glands to secrete hormones like cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline), and the rest of your body is alerted to equip you with emergency fuel and energy in reaction to your panic. Your pulse, blood pressure, blood sugars and fats, respiration, and sweating increase. 


The Resistance Stage
After the initial response, your body should return to normal, but when your stress reactions are too strong or triggered too often, your body will remain on high alert. As a result of the constant stress, your body continues to release stress hormones, which can have a negative affect on your body. This constant release of hormones can lower your immunity and make you more susceptible to illness, cause issues with your mood, increase your blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol, increase fat storage, disrupt your hunger cues, cause stomach cramps, loss of libido, lower sperm count in men, and irregular menstrual cycles in women.


The Exhaustion Stage
Eventually, when your body continues to function in this wired state, your emergency resources are depleted and your body starts to shut down. This final burnout state represents your body’s inability to cope with continuously high demands.

The problem with stress is that our bodies don’t know the difference between a bear chasing us and work (or pandemic) related anxiety. Perceived stress is the amount of stress an individual feels he or she is under. Your body doesn’t know that the bear it thinks is chasing you is actually a project you have to get done at work. Our stress response is perfectly healthy when there’s a real emergency, but if our bodies are constantly getting stress signals for everyday issues, it can become a problem. 

Stress can be acute or chronic. To turn off the stress response, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated to help the body conserve energy and rest. This is known as “rest and digest” and is critical for your well-being. Unfortunately, the return to relaxation doesn’t occur promptly for many people in today’s fast-paced society. While we’re all running around in panic mode trying to check off our never-ending to-do lists, chronic stress is disrupting the natural balance required for optimal health, speeding up the aging process, and increasing the body’s susceptibility to illness.

Stress is also a major factor when it comes to weight gain. When faced with stressful situations, people have to find ways to cope. Coping mechanisms are different for everyone, but many people turned to food when faced with stress. Food offers a momentary escape or an immediate pleasurable experience in the midst of an unpleasant state, making it an attractive option for a quick fix to alleviate stress. 

Stress hormones lead us to crave highly palatable, high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar foods like rich pasta dishes, cake, cookies, ice cream, chips, etc. High-sugar foods provide a quick source of energy that the body needs when it is stressed and preparing for “fight or flight.” Highly palatable foods also lead to the release of dopamine (the feel-good hormone) which is very attractive when you’re stressed. 

Additionally, the cortisol that is released when you’re feeling stressed tells your body to store your excess calories as fat, particularly around the belly. Excess belly fat is associated with an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, and many other chronic diseases.

So, how can we manage our stress levels? Here are a few tips!

-Practice calming activities like meditation, yoga, and deep breathing techniques

-Eat a balanced diet with mostly whole foods, fruits, and vegetables

-Exercise- anything from going for a walk to more intense exercise routines can help

-Socialize- talk to friends, family, or a significant other

-Plan your schedule using a daily or weekly planner

-Prioritize your tasks and focus on one thing at a time

-Get plenty of sleep

I hope your family is staying safe and staying home during these uncertain times. I am here to help if stress is a problem for you, now or anytime! Visit bettertodayhealth.org to schedule your free initial consultation today!

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