These are especially trying times we are living through. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate headlines and affect our everyday lives, turning on the news or even scrolling through social media is enough to cause stress. But it’s important to manage this as much as possible, because the fact is, stress will make you sick.
What is Stress?
Medically speaking, stress is the body’s response to a threat, either perceived or real. It can manifest itself through both physical and mental symptoms, which we will discuss below.
Stress is actually beneficial in small doses. It prompts us to take action in ways that are little (fear of an impending layoff can motivate you to update your resume) and big (a bear is chasing you—run!). Stress that is minor and manageable helps us face everyday challenges and learn how to solve problems. But as with many things in life, there can be too much of a good thing. Excessive anxiety wears us down and can make us sick.
10 Symptoms of Stress
Some symptoms of stress are obvious, while others you might never associate with worry. Common symptoms of stress include:
- Rapid heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- High blood pressure
- Accelerated breathing
- Muscle tightness and tension
- Reduced energy
These may be natural fight-or-flight responses to stressful situations, but it doesn’t mean they’re healthy. In fact, they can have a profound effect on both your mental and physical health.
Stress takes a mental and physical toll on your body. Some of the illnesses resulting from anxiety include:
Too much stress kicks your immune system into overdrive, causing it to release chemicals called histamines in order to combat the perceived threat. Too much histamine produces an allergic reaction characterized by red, itchy bumps on your skin known as hives.
When your immune system is suppressed, you don’t have the ability to ward off viruses such as the common cold as effectively. Studies show that people who experience stress are twice as likely to get sick.
Stress wreaks havoc with your gastrointestinal system and can lead to problems in the stomach and bowels, such as abdominal pain, acid reflux, nausea, diarrhea, and constipation. It can cause irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms to flare up.
Asthma and allergies
The histamine released by your immune system is the same chemical that causes allergic reactions to pollen, dander, mold, dust mites, and other substances. Mast cell-associated diseases such as asthma and allergies are likely to worsen when you experience excessive levels of stress.
Stress causes fluctuations in weight and may contribute to obesity due to higher cortisol levels, which impede your body’s ability to process blood sugar and interfere with metabolism. This may lead to increased belly fat and stronger cravings for sweets and carbohydrates. And obesity in turn is linked to a number of additional health concerns such as diabetes, and cancer.
Rises in blood pressure and cholesterol associated with stress are bad for the cardiovascular system, increasing your risk of heart disease. Your chances of a fatal heart attack are higher when you’re stressed.
Skin and hair problems
When you’re under stress, your body produces an overabundance of hormones that cause your skin glands to become oily. This can cause acne, psoriasis, and eczema.Your immune system may even attack hair follicles, leading to significant hair loss.
Anxiety affects your mind as well as your body. It causes a disruption in brain chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine and elevates cortisol levels, all of which have a negative impact on your mood, ability to focus and concentrate, and memory. These changes can lead to depression and long-term personality disorders.
Getting a handle on stress can help prevent you from falling ill. Some of the most effective remedies include:
- Exercising regularly
- Meditation and deep breathing
- Listening to music
- Eating healthy
- Getting plenty of sleep
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, coping with stress is more important than ever. In addition to the above steps, experts recommend taking frequent breaks from watching, reading, or listening to the news. This includes social media! These constant updates, while informative, are also unnerving…and as long as you are taking the recommended steps (social distancing, working from home, limiting non-essential activities and travel), there isn’t a lot you can do. Ignore hyperbole and share the facts about COVID-19 by sticking to trusted sources like the Centers for Disease Control. Having access to accurate information can be calming. Take advantage of the down time to learn a new skill and focus on your favorite activities. If you begin to feel too overwhelmed and are having trouble coping, contact your health care provider.
As cliché as this sounds, remember: we are all in this together! You aren’t the only one experiencing stress and anxiety. Understanding that your response is normal can also help ease your symptoms.
Written by Mark Petruska