6 Signs Stress is Making You Sick (And What to do About it)
A little stress can actually be a good thing. In small spurts, it’s what motivates you to prep for a major test or work presentation, or makes your palms go sweaty in anticipation of a first date. Too much stress, on the other hand, can be overwhelming emotionally – and even detrimental to your physical health.
“Just like our feelings give us information about our needs, so do our bodies through physiological feedback,” says Eliza Chamblin, a therapist in New York City who specializes in stress management. “If you are noticing any physical or somatic symptoms, consider it as valuable information telling you that something isn’t right.”
1. You’re having trouble thinking clearly
If you’ve been having a tough time concentrating on one task at a time, remembering things accurately, or just generally operating on a higher level, stress could be to blame. Stress makes it difficult for you to think clearly, as it clouds your thinking and makes it difficult to focus.
This mental fatigue sometimes happens when small stressors pile in at a volume with which we can’t keep up. Things like making multiple tough decisions at work, handling ongoing interruptions, and juggling social commitments – all of these can accumulate and start to weigh on you (not to mention if your phone keeps going off at every step!). If you don’t have a chance to hit the pause button and reset, brain fog could set in. Focus is a finite resource and when stretched thin, it falters.
The unfortunate reality of this mental fatigue is that it can affect your physical energy levels, too. If you’ve spent the whole day feeling exhausted just doing the tasks you that you normally knock out in one afternoon, your body will feel tired. For some, this perpetuates the stress cycle; no energy for stress-busting outlets like meditation, creative endeavors, or exercise means nowhere to release that stress, and it remains a looming burden.
What to do if stress is making you mentally fatigued:
- Try to pare down the number of decisions you make per day. Research shows that the more choices we make, the less energy and self-control we have afterwards. Simple ways to cut down on your daily decision load could mean streamlining your meal and outfit choices (e.g., ordering the same lunch every Monday; planning your wardrobe out every week).
- Try moving decision-heavy work meetings to the morning, or whenever you’re at your freshest. The ideal time will change based on whether you’re a morning person or a night owl.
- Stop multitasking. Spreading your attention and energy across too many verticals can, ironically, make you less productive. Stay with one assignment at a time; and if you can help it, avoid letting small tasks interrupt any big projects you’re working on.
- Avoiding checking phone and email notifications for the first hour or so of your day. This will help you set your own mood and intentions for the day without being sidelined by work responsibilities, friend FOMO, or other stressful jolts.
- Give yourself dedicated time to “zone out.” Just like athletes need a rest day before they have a big competition, our brains also need downtime to replenish and get ready for additional work. Let your mind wander every day, whether that means taking an extra long shower, doodling in a notebook, or going for a walk with your phone set to airplane mode.
- Try one ofthese 10 subtle ways to handle stress at work.
An informal APA survey from 2013 on stress and sleep found links in both directions. Forty-three percent of the nearly 2,000 adults surveyed reported that stress had caused them to lie awake at night at least one time in the past month. When they don’t sleep well, 21 percent reported feeling more stressed. And among adults with higher self-reported stress levels (8 or higher on a 10-point scale), 45 percent said they felt more stressed when they didn’t get enough sleep. Finally, adults with lower self-reported stress levels claimed they slept more hours a night on average than do adults with higher self-reported stress levels, to the tune of almost an hour less sleep (6.2 versus 7.1 hours a night).
Chronic stress has long been connected to worsened heart health outcomes. While there’s limited conclusive evidence to say that stress alone can trigger heart disease, there are quite a few ways it can contribute to it, according to a JAMA review. Part of the stress response is heart rate quickening and blood vessel constriction (or vasodilation for some skeletal muscles to help the body move in a fight or flee response), thanks to the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol signal. If the body remains in this state for a long time, like can be the case with chronic stress, the heart and cardiovascular system may be damaged, according to APA.
Another means by which stress can contribute to heart disease: You might cope with your stress by eating or drinking too much, which in turn can contribute to cardiovascular disease, also according to APA.
“Negative emotions and stress can contribute to a heart attack,” Dr. Dossett says. One meta-analysis published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, for example, found a 50 percent increased risk of cardiovascular disease associated with high levels of work stress.
Stress can also weaken your immune function, which can make you more susceptible to infectious diseases like colds, Uchino explains. Researchers have conducted experiments for which they exposed a group of 420 volunteers to the common cold virus and then quarantined them to see if they got sick. The data, presented in a 2004 International Congress of Behavioral Medicine keynote address and published in The New England Journal of Medicine (PDF), revealed that participants who suffered from greater overall stress (measured via surveys on stressful life events, perceived stress, and mood) were indeed more likely to become infected with a virus after exposure.
Stress does not cause HIV (the virus that cause AIDS, which is sexually transmitted or passed through shared blood, which can happen when needles are shared) — it’s often sexually transmitted or passed through shared blood, but there is some evidence that stress can worsen severity of the disease. A study of 96 HIV-positive patients published in Psychological Medicine found stress increased the risk of progressing from HIV to AIDS by 50 percent and more than doubled the risk of developing an AIDS-related clinical condition.
Another review, published in 2016, concluded that while the link between stress and clinical outcomes are mixed, higher stress was linked to lower disease-fighting white blood cell counts, higher viral load, and disease worsening. Studies also linked stress with worse treatment adherence, per the review.
Stress-Related Health Problems
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and can be exacerbated by stress. When you’re feeling stressed out, your body releases hormones like cortisol, which increases your blood pressure and heart rate. This puts extra strain on your heart, which may lead to health problems down the road.
Being stressed out can also increase your risk for stroke . When you’re under stress, your body releases hormones that constrict blood vessels and raise blood pressure. This puts a strain on the brain and the rest of the body as well as increases your risk of having a stroke.
Depression is a common side effect of stress. When you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed, your brain produces less serotonin, which is responsible for your mood regulation. Having low serotonin levels can lead to feelings of depression and hopelessness.
Stress can contribute to the development of diabetes . When you’re under stress, your body produces more cortisol and sugar, lowers insulin production, and affects the sensitivity and resistance of the insulin hormone. As a result, stress may increase the risk for type II diabetes.
Weakened Immune System
Chronic stress can also lead to a weakened immune system. When you’re feeling stressed, your body releases cortisol, causing the immune system to become suppressed. As a result, stress makes you more susceptible to colds and other infections.
Tips for Preventing and Dealing with Stress
When you’re feeling stressed out or anxious, getting a massage can be a great way to relax. Massage therapy works by relieving tension in the muscles, which may reduce stress levels. Massage therapy also helps improve blood circulation and promotes relaxation.
Studies have shown that meditation can help reduce stress levels. When you’re meditating, you’re focusing on your breathing and clearing your mind of all thoughts. Meditation enables you to disconnect from your stressors and calm down. It also reduces blood pressure, anxiety levels, and cortisol production – all of which can help reduce symptoms of stress.
Get a Pet
Having a pet has been shown to reduce your cortisol levels. In addition, pets provide companionship and unconditional love, which can help reduce stress. They also require regular attention and exercise, which can be a great way to relieve tension. However, be sure only to get a pet if your lifestyle allows it.
One of the oldest therapies in the world, aromatherapy uses essential oils to promote relaxation and improve mood. When you’re feeling stressed, inhaling the scent of lavender or chamomile can help calm and relax you.
Getting regular exercise can reduce stress levels. Staying active also helps keep your body strong and healthy, which reduces the risk of several diseases associated with stress.
Eating healthy foods is one way to stay energized when you’re feeling stressed out. Eating junk food might make you feel temporarily better because it boosts your blood sugar, but this is only a temporary fix that will ultimately make you feel worse. Staying away from processed foods and eating plenty of fresh produce can help keep stress levels down.
By using these tips, you can help keep your stress levels in check and avoid the health problems that come along with it. Staying healthy and stress-free is vital to living a happy and productive life.