Getting a Handle on Stress and Hepatitis C

One way of defining stress is the body's response to a change or challenge. The change or challenge that causes the stress is called a stressor, which could be anything from the freezing temperature outside, to a new medicine you're taking, to an attack dog that's charging after you!

Acute versus chronic stress

During the stress response, energy is diverted from your immune, digestive, and reproductive systems and focused on giving you a supreme burst of energy.

The body is designed to deal with short-term (acute) stress. When a stressor first arrives — in the form of an attack dog, for example — your body takes most of its energy reserves to fight or help you run like the devil to save your life. When the dog is gone, your body returns to normal because you no longer need the extra energy diverted to save your life.

In modern times, we have a lot of long-term (chronic) stress. These are challenges that don't go away and keep us stressed out for long periods of time. These stressors can range from a difficult boss or financial worries to a long-term chronic illness, like hepatitis C. This fight-or-flight biological response was well suited to the precarious lives of cave dwellers and their many physical threats.

The problem with long-term stress is that your body doesn't get to go back to a nonstressed state. In modern times, when mundane things like traffic jams and deadlines trigger stress, it's not so useful to lose precious energy in response to these almost-constant stressors. When you have hepatitis C, the last thing you want is for energy to be taken away from your immune system.

Physical stress

A healthy body is in an exquisite state of balance called homeostasis. Any disruption to your body from an injury or an illness causes physical stress. The hepatitis C virus causes physical stress just by being a foreigner in your body and making your immune system go into attack mode.

Likewise, to keep its balance, your body needs proper amounts and types of nutrition, rest, movement, fresh air, and warmth. Too much of anything (including food, exercise, and heat) and the wrong types of things (such as polluted air, junk food, and dangerous drugs) also cause stress.

If a physical stress is short term — like missing some sleep on exam night or having an occasional ice cream — the body can usually recover. But with long-term physical stress, like not sleeping for weeks or smoking cigarettes for years, the body has a more difficult time regaining its balance.

Emotional and mental stress

Much of our modern stress comes from mental and emotional anxiety. Pressures and worries to get to work on time, make deadlines, pay bills, get your kids into college, and so on can trigger an emotional stress response. With hep C, you probably have worries related to one or more of the following things:

  • Overall health
  • Sexual interest or ability (due to hepatitis C or medication)
  • Financial situation
  • Work hours, job conditions, or the job itself
  • Lifestyle (diet, alcohol consumption, smoking)

Emotional stress is a funny thing because any type of change, even good change, can be stressful. Think of the stress that can accompany the first year of marriage or bringing home a new baby!

Linking stress and illness

Illness is a major challenge to the normal workings of your body and causes stress in different ways. The physical aspects of the stress caused by hep C are pretty straightforward and include the interaction among the following:

  • The hepatitis C virus: The virus is growing and making proteins inside your body, which affects your immune system, your liver cells, and other parts of your body.
  • The immune system: Your immune system is now in attack mode because it senses danger from the hep C virus.
  • Your liver: The liver has trouble doing its job when the war between the hep C virus and the immune system is being fought in its midst.

These physical components of hepatitis C virus infection interact with the emotional aspects of stress. Anxiety, fatigue, and depression are common emotional components of hepatitis C.

Because stress hormones affect the brain and the body, stress affects your mind and your body. Whether you have physical or emotional stress, remember that stress of one type can add to the stress of another type, so stress itself is stressful! It's a two-way street: Physical stress can lead to emotional stress, and emotional stress can lead to physical stress. And both play a role in lessening your body's ability to protect itself against hep C.

Reducing stress — one way or another

Stress is so pervasive in modern life and potentially harmful — even more so for folks with a chronic illness like hep C. The good news is that there are lots of ways to deal with stress and diminish its effects on your health and your life in general.

The key to keeping stress from hurting you is in your reaction to it. Practice some of these techniques, and you'll be humming or giggling instead of stressing out.

Taking care of body basics

You can start fighting stress by taking care of your body through three basic measures: exercise; regular, nutritious meals; and plenty of quality sleep.

Keeping the physical body in good shape gives you more resilience to deal with stress. Remember to avoid physical stressors like breathing polluted air, smoking cigarettes, taking street drugs, and drinking alcohol).

Respecting your limits and needs

An important part of emotional stress is the feeling of not having control over your life. You may feel that having hepatitis C has put you on a roller coaster that you don't know how to stop. Here are some ways to bring back some of your personal power:

  • Say no. One of the easiest ways to get stressed is to take on too many tasks. Recognize your limits and accept them.
  • Ask for help. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Ask your family and friends, social service workers, doctors, fellow support group members, and neighbors for help when you need it.
  • Get information. The more you know about your options with hep C, the more empowered and less stressed you'll feel.

Enjoying life

If you're not feeling well, you may forget to do the things you love. Remember the pleasures of life, which can distract you from your pain and may even make you feel better.

  • Listen to music. Music therapy can bring you some joy. Find a CD or radio station that plays music that soothes you, whether it's jazz, classical, or folk. Other types of sounds, such as waves, sometimes also have a calming effect.
  • Engage your creative side. Everyone has creativity waiting to be expressed. Lose yourself in drawing, taking photographs, or sewing a piece of patchwork. Or maybe you enjoy dancing, playing the piano, cooking a meal, or arranging a few flowers in a vase.
  • Connect with nature. Try to experience nature. Whether it's the beach, a forest, or the mountains, get outdoors and breathe some fresh air. Or simply go to your backyard or a local park and notice the different types of trees and flowers
  • Focus on spirituality. Whether you belong to an organized religion or you have your own way of expressing the divine, find a way to bring the sacred to your everyday life: Light a candle; say the prayers of your particular faith; make up your own prayers; or take time for meditation.
  • Play with your pets. Research has shown that spending time with your furry friends helps reduce stress. They're less stressed than humans are, so they can help you relax, especially when they start purring or wagging their tails.
  • Spend time with family and friends. In today's world, it's easy to isolate yourself or get too busy to keep in touch with others. But calling an old friend or inviting a family member to dinner can give you a real pick-me-up.
  • Find humor: Laughter is a known healer. Find a funny movie or interact with pets or children who have a sense of humor.
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