Signs Stress is Making You Sick (And What to do About it)

Stress in the teen years can be especially intense, particularly during periods of major social adjustment and hormonal shifts. Frequently, adults attribute signs of stress to typical "teen angst" rather than adolescent depression.

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Coping with Stress

Can stress make you sick? The answer is a resounding yes. If you want to know how to handle stress, it helps to know what stress is, how it affects your body, and what you can do about it.

Anything that an individual perceives as a problem can cause stress. When we perceive a problem and don’t have the resources (or believe we don’t) to cope with it, we can experience stress. Stressors can be physical, such as an illness or injury, or emotional, such as family, job, or financial problems. Stress is a reaction to a situation where a person feels threatened or anxious. 1 The body’s response to stress is natural and adaptive. 2 However, chronic stress is harmful to our health, causing both psychological and biological changes that increase our chances of becoming ill.

When faced with stress (for example a physical threat), your body responds with a “fight or flight reaction” to enable you to fight back or run away from danger. The adrenal glands release the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) and the neurotransmitter norepinephrine into the bloodstream. The adrenal glands also release corticosteroid hormones that release fatty acids for energy, causing digestion to stop, blood sugar levels to rise, and the heart to pump more blood to the muscles.

At the same time, the pituitary gland releases a hormone that stimulates the release of cortisol. In the short term, cortisol helps the body divert energy to muscles and organs that are needed to avoid danger. However, the same hormones that help defend the body in the short-term can hurt it when produced for longer periods. Because one action of cortisol is to suppress the immune system, chronic stress causes wounds to heal more slowly than normal and leaves the body prone to infections. This is why chronic stress is also associated with gastrointestinal conditions such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome. Since cortisol changes blood sugar and heart rate, cortisol is also associated with diseases of the cardiovascular system, including hypertension, stroke, and heart disease.

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.

Causes of Psychosomatic Illness

The exact mechanisms of stress are not completely understood, but researchers know that stress and depression can manifest as physical pain and illness. It’s a complex process, but here’s an analogy that might help.

Compare your body to a pressure cooker. If it’s allowed to vent its steam, it works efficiently. If it can’t release steam, the pressure continues to build until the lid blows off. Now, imagine that the cooker is under pressure already and you apply more pressure to keep the lid on. When the container can no longer hold in all the pressure, it will break at its weakest point.

Like the pressure cooker giving way at the weakest point of its structure, stress-related illness is most likely to develop where your body is already weakened.

Someone who is under stress and does not or is unable to vent their emotions will eventually reach an emotional breaking point. This may result in physical symptoms or trigger an episode of major depression.

In retrospect, you may recognize some warning signs that a break was coming. For example, if you tend to strain your neck, you might experience increased neck pain when you’re stressed. Back pain, stomach trouble, and headaches are other common ways for stress to take up residence in your body.

Stress can also compromise your immunity. For example, some people tend to catch colds, the flu, or other illnesses and infections when under pressure and may take longer to get better.

Part of the body’s fight-or-flight response to stress is the release of certain chemicals, such as adrenaline, that can be very useful in a life-or-death situation. However, if the body has high amounts of these chemicals or they are released continuously over an extended period (such as with chronic stress), they may do more harm than good.

Autoimmune Diseases

Chronic stress plays a particularly critical role in the risk of developing autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS), lupus, or irritable bowel syndrome. The likelihood of developing an autoimmune disease is determined by a mix of genetic and environmental factors. In large part, the environmental factors that influence the development of autoimmunity include stressors and dietary deficiencies.

Stress seems to also trigger flare-ups of an autoimmune disease. The defining characteristic of autoimmune disease is a malfunctioning immune system due to inflammation. Under normal circumstances, the immune system is activated to fight invading pathogens and inhibit the growth of malignant cells. However, autoimmunity describes a condition in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue, causing debilitating symptoms. As a result, the immune system because hypersensitive to stressors.