We all know that subjecting yourself to undue amount of stress can be very unpleasant and dulls your mood as well as productivity. But can stress physically make you sick?
I have forever been fascinated with the mind-body connection and how both are always influencing each other in an instant & infinite loop. It has been proven again and again that changing minor things about your body like nutrition, exercise, facial expressions and even posture can dramatically change your long term mood and mental health. But how much of an influence does your mental and emotional experience have on your physical bodily state?
You must have heard mention of this notion from your grandparents or other more experienced people around you. My grandfather used to say “constant stress causes a slow death”. And now the proof of this claim is also confirmed by various scientific research and experiments that stress can create such internal states in the body which can wear the body and its functions down, even to the cellular level.
Let me talk about the obvious scenario. Imagine you are stressed about something, perhaps at work, and you don’t feel so positive or energetic. Immediately your body starts feeling lethargic and dreary. Or if the stress also has a flavor of fear or dread of an unpleasant situation, you may also feel sickness in your stomach, headache and tightness in muscles. You can call these bodily reactions to mental stress a fight-or-flight response. This is the body’s inherent mechanism to prepare us for situations where our survival may be at risk. During this fight-or-flight response, several of our bodily systems shut down, for example the digestive system and the pre-frontal cortex i.e. the long term thinking part of the human brain. Instead of these functions, the latent energy inside the body is directed to other systems like long-muscular fibers (for escaping or indulging in combat) and cardio-vascular system (for adequately pumping more blood to essential body parts). This whole response is single-handedly orchestrated by a hormone called Cortisol, also popularly known as the ‘Stress Hormone’. All this machinery is fairly ancient in the human body and was designed to serve us well in an environment of constant threats by predators and natural calamities.
Today we no longer face savage predators but we still feel stressed by non-favorable situations and hostile people. So without even thinking about it we are constantly inside the fight-or-flight response. While the response is very useful in an actually life-threatening situation, it is very harmful if not switched off. The question is not ‘can stress make you sick?’ but the question is how soon?
While the body is in fight-or-flight, it can’t rest or recover. It can’t digest properly. It easily depletes its resources of energy and fuel. And it even experience a mass-scale breakdown of cells and tissues. Really, subjecting yourself to undue stress for long periods of time is the same is submerging an iron rod inside water for many weeks. The iron gets rusty, becomes week and loses structure and finally breaks down. The same thing happens with the body and its cells in the presence of constant and high cortisol.
And this is how constant and long-term stress makes us sick. Physically sick.
Good Stress and the Relaxation Response
Now that we know continuous stress is bad for us, some of us might be thinking of ways to eliminate stress out of our lives. In my humble opinion, that is neither possible nor beneficial. See, stress occurring intermittently and in proper quantities is good for us because it makes us get off of our ass and get work done. This is what makes us move. Stress is also a kind of motivation to take action. They call it ‘eu’stress, which means beneficial stress. So you don’t want to eliminate stress entirely.
But to be fair, some of us work at jobs which are very stressful and that amount of stress can’t be beneficial to anyone. And I agree with you on that. Here my advice would be two-pronged though.
- Try to reduce stress as much as you can by employing proper time management techniques, delegating work, eliminating non-essential tasks and setting up processes & systems for predictable work
- Learn ways to counter-act on stress, techniques like meditation, proper nutrition and exercise, journaling, random acts of kindness
To summarize, I just want remind you that if you are allowing yourself to be in a stressful situation for a long time, whether that is a job or a toxic relationship, you are not doing anyone a favor. In fact, you are doing yourself and your loved ones a big disservice. So stop believing that you are a victim to your circumstances and start taking little actions to improve your situation. Maybe even ask for help.
You can do it. And I’m committed to help you on every step of your journey.
Until the next post, good bye!