Understanding How Stress Can Make You Sick
Researchers estimate that 75 to 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are for complaints and conditions that are, in some way, stress-related. Every week, 112 million people take some form of medication for stress-related symptoms. This statistic is not surprising, given the wide-ranging physiological changes that accompany a stress response. Stress affects just about every bodily system or body part. Stress can play a role in exacerbating the symptoms of a wide variety of other disorders and illnesses as well.
“Not tonight, dear, I have a (stress) headache”
A headache is just one of the many ways stress can interfere with your sex life. Stress can affect sexual performance and rob you of your libido. When you are feeling stress, feeling sexy may not be at the top of your to-do list. Disturbed sexual performance may appear in the form of premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, and other forms of difficulty in reaching orgasm. The irony is sex can be a way of relieving stress. In fact, for some people, sexual activity increases when they feel stressed.
How stress can be a pain in the neck (and other places)
Your muscles are a prime target for stress. When you are under stress, your muscles contract and they become tense. This muscle tension can affect your nerves, blood vessels, organs, skin, and bones. Chronically tense muscles can result in a variety of conditions and disorders, including muscle spasms, cramping, facial or jaw pain, bruxism (grinding your teeth), tremors, and shakiness. Many forms of headache, chest pain, and back pain are among the more common conditions that result from stress-induced muscle tension.
Taking stress to heart
Stress can play a role in circulatory diseases such as coronary heart disease, sudden cardiac death, and strokes. This fact is not surprising because stress can increase your blood pressure, constrict your blood vessels, raise your cholesterol level, trigger arrhythmias, and speed up the rate at which your blood clots. Stress is now considered a major risk factor in heart disease, right up there with smoking, being overweight, and not exercising. All of this becomes very important when you consider that heart disease kills more men over the age of 50 and more women over the age of 65 than any other disease.
Hitting below the belt
Ever notice how your stress seems to finds its way to your stomach? Your gastrointestinal system can be a ready target for much of the stress in your life. Stress can affect the secretion of acid in your stomach and can speed up or slow down the process of peristalsis (the rhythmic contraction of the muscles in your intestines). Constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, and weight loss all can be stress-related. Stress can contribute to gastroesophageal reflux disease and can also play a role in exacerbating irritable bowel syndrome and colitis.
Stress can affect your immune system
In the past decade or so, growing evidence has supported the theory that stress affects your immune system. In fact, researchers have even coined a name for this new field of study. They call it psychoneuroimmunology. Quite a mouthful! Scientists who choose to go into this field study the relationships between moods, emotional states, hormonal levels, and changes in the nervous system and the immune system. Without drowning you in detail, stress — particularly chronic stress — can compromise your immune system, rendering it less effective in resisting bacteria and viruses. Research has shown that stress may play a role in exacerbating a variety of immune system disorders such as HIV, AIDS, herpes, cancer metastasis, viral infection, rheumatoid arthritis, and certain allergies, as well as other auto-immune conditions. Some recent studies appear to confirm this.
The cold facts: Stress can make you sniffle
In that wonderfulmusical comedy Guys and Dolls, a lovelorn Adelaide laments that when your life is filled with stress, “a person can develop a cold.” It looks like she just may be right. Recent research conducted by Dr. Sheldon Cohen, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, has concluded that stress really does lower your resistance to colds. Cohen and his associates found that the higher a person’s stress score, the more likely he was to come down with a cold when exposed to a cold virus. Chronic stress, lasting a month or more, was the most likely to result in catching a cold. Experiencing severe stress for more than a month but less than six months doubled a person’s risk of coming down with a cold, compared with those who were experiencing only shorter-term stress. Stress lasting more than two years nearly quadrupled the risk. The study also found that being unemployed or underemployed, or having interpersonal difficulties with family or friends, had the greatest effect. The exact mechanism whereby stress weakens immune functioning is still unclear. Tissues anyone?