Stress can have a profound impact on your body. But can it make you physically sick?
The short answer: yes.
Acute stress can induce physical changes to maximize your performance for a stressful situation. Stress activates your sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight or flight” reflex. The Cleveland Clinic explains, “…your sympathetic nervous system activates to speed up your heart rate, deliver more blood to areas of your body that need more oxygen or other responses to help you get out of danger.”
While this response can be helpful for fighting against or running away from predators, if induced in an unnecessary or chronic way, stress can make you sick.
What are some of the symptoms?
There is a wide variety of physical and mental symptoms related to chronic stress, says Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist and Director of Wellness, Engagement and Outreach in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine.
“Chronic stress is something that definitely shows up both in the brain and the body and illustrates the connection between the two.” Some examples of symptoms include:
“Sometimes the person will be more irritable with, or avoidant of others, and that might make them stop responding to text messages or cancel plans, for example,” Gold says. “They might also turn to alcohol or drug use to cope.”
Can stress cause you to throw up?
“I feel sick to my stomach,” is a phrase many of us have used to describe a situation that was particularly disturbing or stressful. It is likely a part of our lexicon because stress can indeed make you vomit.
When the “fight or flight” reflex is in full-swing, your body diverts more blood to areas of your need more oxygen – for example, your legs muscles for running away. The University of Chicago Health writes that this can “negatively impact gut motility, or the way our intestines and stomach squeeze and move waste through the body. Also, stress can affect the delicate balance of bacteria in our gut, causing GI discomfort.”
How does stress alter your brain?
When the brain undergoes “plasticity,” it means that it is changing its structure or function. In the brain, neurons, the major cells responsible for rapid electrical communication, are particularly “plastic.” This may not be a bad thing.
“The brain responds to stress and all kinds of hormones in very plastic ways,” explains Dr. Cheryl Conrad, a professor of psychology, behavioral neuroscience and comparative psychology at Arizona State University. “Cortisol changes the way neurons respond to each other, the receptors that are expressed and when stress becomes chronic, the neurons alter their function. This is not unique to stress — ovarian hormones alter neurons too.”
She adds that this transformation isn’t necessarily a “negative” outcome. If chronic stress causes you to develop coping habits, that’s a survival mechanism in action. It’s a good thing.
What to do if stress is making you sick
Gold has a few recommendations for treating chronic stress using a holistic approach.
“As hard as it is to do, trying to find time, even 5 minutes for yourself and doing something you like, can make a difference. What you do for that time is up to you, but some people find things like mindfulness, exercise and journaling helpful for stress reduction. It is also important that things like routine, sleep and eating are emphasized. This includes learning to have stricter boundaries between work and home and saying no, or setting limits, more often.”
Additionally, you should check in with your doctor about any physical or emotional symptoms you may be having, as there could be underlying or secondary health conditions.
Read more about stress, how to improve your wellbeing
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