For most people, it’s no surprise that chronic stress can make us sick in any number of ways. After all, up to 90 percent of primary care doctor visits are stress-related. You may already know that stress can make your blood pressure skyrocket, mess with your digestion and sleep, and prompt you to eat mass quantities of high-calorie snacks. In part, it’s because stress boosts the output of cortisol, the hormone that influences, regulates or modulates many of the functions in the body from appetite to sleep to the immune response.
Consider these less obvious ways that stress can affect your health. Reading through them may just renew your commitment to stress-busting activities that can help fortify your health.
6 physical consequences of stress overload
Belly fat. That roll of fat around your midriff can be blamed in part from eating poorly when you’re stressed. But additionally, the stress hormone cortisol has been linked to the accumulation of more deep abdominal fat. All the more reason to make exercise a daily ritual–especially engaging in fat-burning cardiovascular activities like brisk walking.
Foggy memory. When the body is flooded with cortisol, the neurotransmitters that help the brain cells communicate are affected, making it hard to think straight or retrieve memories. Mindful meditation may help calm the cortisol output and clear your head.
Skin problems beyond pimples. It’s common to get a nasty breakout when under duress. But did you know that stress can also trigger rashes, rosacea, eczema, a flare-up of fever blisters—and even the formation of fine facial lines? Cortisol triggers an elevation in blood sugar, which in turn can damage the collagen and elastin, the protein fibers that plump skin and keep it smooth. Constant muscle tension also leads to permanent wrinkling. So in addition to OTC products containing retinols and antioxidants often recommended to firm skin, the Rx for healthy skin is to de-stress—get good sleep, practice yoga or other relaxation techniques, and exercise to bring a healthy glow.
Achiness. You’ve got a looming deadline, you’re juggling a hectic schedule, and your neck, back, and shoulders are sore as heck. Sound familiar? There is a definite link between stress and pain and experts aren’t sure whether the pain is caused by stress affecting the muscles or the brain chemicals, or both. This much is clear: Both stress and pain increase the other and sets the stage for chronic pain and chronic stress. To break the link, a combo of relaxation methods and exercise are often advised.
Flare up of chronic conditions. It’s not unusual for GI disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma or diabetes to get out of control when people are under stress. With diabetes, for example, increased cortisol raises blood sugar. The message is clear: keeping on top of your condition should include keeping on top of your stress levels.
Frequent colds. Even if you already know this, it’s worth remembering that the common cold virus is more likely to take hold in your body if you’re stressed. A few years ago, researchers found that stress affects the cell’s ability to regulate the inflammatory response to fight the virus early and quickly. So once again, stress management could be an important way to help being felled by a circulating cold.
For Health Advocate members
- If you’re a Health Advocate member with access to our EAP+Work/Life Program and are having difficulty with stress, anxiety or other personal problems, call us. A Health Advocate Licensed Professional Counselor can help you with coping skills to help lower your stress levels and offer stress management tips. We can also connect you with resources to help you better balance your work/life. It’s confidential and, if needed, we can provide referrals for additional support.
- If you’re a Health Advocate member with our Advocacy services, contact us to speak with a Personal Health Advocate who specializes in behavioral health. The Personal Health Advocate can help you identify resources for help.