Why Chronic Stress can Make you Sick


The depressing news and the GREAT news about stress

You're driving down the highway when suddenly a car cuts you off almost causing an accident! You slam on the brakes, scream obscenities while adrenaline courses through your system! Your heart's in your throat! This is your body's fight/flight response preparing you to defend against any and all danger-real or perceived. All survival mental and physical systems are on high alert, such as:

  • Faster heart beat
  • Faster, shallower breathing
  • Heightened vision and hearing
  • Muscle tension

And many more physical changes - all intended to help you survive physical danger. The fight/flight or stress response is triggered every single time you perceive stress but does no significant damage if your body returns fairly quickly to a balanced state to recover from the energy drain. Humans are incredibly resilient to their daily dose of stress. The danger is that today's intense, fast-paced lifestyle triggers the fight/flight many times a day if not an hour leaving too many with an elevated stress response all day, most days.

If your body doesn't have time to recover from one triggering event to the next you end up in a near constant state of tension making you more vulnerable to physical, mental and emotional problems.In stress workshops I ask participants to name their ongoing physical and emotional symptoms and I tell them if research finds that chronic stress can lead to these conditions. They'll offer:

  • Headaches;
  • Constipation;
  • Digestive problems of all types;
  • Insomnia;
  • Panic attacks;
  • Depression;
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome;
  • Diabetes;
  • High blood pressure;
  • Cardiovascular problems;

My response to all is yes, stress can lead to all of these. The research doesn't suggest that all conditions are caused by stress but stress can make you vulnerable to illness and disease development. Becoming an excellent stress manager also doesn't mean that every symptom and illness will disappear. But many would or at least would improve significantly if you consistently sought a healthier balance.

Chronic stress is what you need to be concerned with

Chronic stress is elevated stress that lasts for more than four months.  Examples include:

  • A traumatic event like a hurricane and its aftermath;
  • Ongoing illness;
  • Long-term care-giving;
  • Ongoing financial stress;

Too much stress leaves three groups most vulnerable to the ravages of stress:

  1. People with chronic stress;
  2. Hotheads and those who are very impatient;
  3. Those caught up in the runaway American lifestyle with entirely too much activity and not enough rest;

Chronic stress is potentially harmful because your mind and body are on high alert (fight/flight) for too long and they don't return to a state of homeostasis or balance frequently enough. You're not able to recover from the assault of the stress hormones. Over time, too much of the stress response leads to the above listed afflictions and many more. In fact, in my book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple (www.letyourbodywin.com) I list 64 symptoms and illnesses that stress can make you vulnerable to develop.

The fight/flight response is fascinating and it's all about physical survival. Did you know, for example, that when your in-laws call if just the sound of their voices sets you on edge that your brain orders your stomach to diminish or stop digesting? Digestion isn't essential for fighting or fleeing - for immediate physical survival - so it's shut down or slowed while your heart and lungs rev up to defend against an attacking tiger - or in-laws. Could this explain why digestive problems are so common today? You bet!

It's the cortisol!

Much of the potential harm to your well-being comes from excessive amounts of the fight/flight hormone, cortisol. This is a vital hormone with two of its major functions being to help:

  • Adjust your wake/sleep cycle: if you experience insomnia it's probably because you have elevated cortisol at night (from too much stress all day) when it should be at a lower level to allow you to sleep. It begins its gradual increase early in the morning to allow you to awaken to start your day.
  • Restore your body's energy after it has literally fought or run: after your fight/flight has been triggered cortisol tells you to eat carbohydrates to resupply your energy stores.  You don't have to eat after you've experienced stress but you have the urge to eat. Is this why so many people gain weight due to stress? Yes again!

Too much stress, therefore too much cortisol, wears on you and over time your symptoms begin to show themselves. Dr. Robert Sapolsky, author of "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers," says, "If stress increases your blood pressure then chronic stress chronically increases your blood pressure." He also explains the damage of chronic stress: "No single disastrous effect, no lone gunman.

Instead, kicking and poking and impeding, here and there, make this a bit worse, [make] that a bit less effective. Thus, making it more likely for the roof to cave in one day."I describe the damage of chronic stress as drip, drip, drip. Little by little too much stress dribbles too much cortisol and other stress hormones throughout your system. Then one day, BOOM!

You have a heart attack or the weight you've packed on over the years leads to obesity and you're diagnosed with diabetes.Even small hassles that aren't worth risking your health and even stewing about stress send cortisol coursing through your system and over time contribute to the accumulation of symptoms.

Rate your health

Would you describe your health these days as:

  • Excellent
  • Very good
  • Good
  • Not good
  • Poor

Your answer predicts future disease and your longevity more accurately than a thorough review of your medical records, according to research in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine in 2006. It makes sense since you live with yourself 24/7. Just as when you drive the same car for a long time and know when something's off, you also know when your body isn't performing as well.

Fascinatingly, these researchers found that people who considered themselves healthier experienced a wider fluctuation of their fight/flight response. They aren't normally stressed so when it kicks in, it's noticeable. Those who felt less healthy didn't notice when their stress response kicked in as much because it wasn't significantly different from how they typically felt. In other words, they had a higher level of stress hormones all of the time, a symptom of chronic stress.

And this is the point!

Too much cortisol (along with the other stress hormones) courses through your system putting pressure on virtually every cell in your body. Whatever your genetic weaknesses are and your bad habits over a lifetime have been will determine which part of you starts to break down first. Contemporary stress is mostly mental, not physical, requiring mental solutions not physical attacks or retreats.

Since it's inappropriate to punch someone out or to run away from them you have to slam on the brakes of your fight/flight energy. We don't use up our stress energy by fighting or fleeing as our ancestors did.  We sit and stew with stress hormones circulating throughout our bodies. And we add insult to injury by not exercising on a regular basis. Drip, drip, drip.It's the ongoing nature of chronic stress when stress keeps your body on high alert month after month that's the main cause of stress-related health problems.

Which stressors are you spending your vital energy on? A difficult boss? Financial stress? Coping with change? Who pushes your buttons? Certainly, some of these are worth your energy, while others are not so it's vital to pick and choose your battles.

The great news about stress!

So far I've addressed the depressing news about stress: it can make you vulnerable to illness and disease development. The GREAT news is simple: to protect yourself schedule more rest away from your stress. It's what I call the easy part of stress management.In direct proportion to your stress, schedule more rest away from it. Scheduling multiple Stress Breaks throughout your day allows your mind and body to gradually return to a state of improved balance facilitating your ability to recover from your daily dose of stress.

Even if you aren't experiencing chronic stress - yet - getting plenty of rest away from your anxiety enhances your resiliency so when you do experience chronic stress - and you almost certainly will someday - you'll be in better stress shape to handle it.

Get rest away from your stress through Stress Breaks

To limit the damage of excess cortisol include multiple Stress Breaks throughout your day to pull you back from your Stress Cliff, where stress begins to damage you physically, mentally and emotionally. Stress Breaks allow your physical body and your mind to seek equilibrium. There are essentially four ways to channel your stress or fight/flight energy:

  1. Problem-solve, the best option because once a stressor is resolved it no longer triggers your fight/flight;
  2. Dull the stress energy through too much sleeping, eating, drinking, watching TV, etc.
  3. Release the energy through exercise, hobbies, friendships, volunteering, etc.
  4. Relax the energy through meditation, deep breathing, yoga, etc.

The most powerful Stress Breaks that help your body maintain healthy cortisol levels are:

  • Exercise 30 - 45 minutes every other day; both anaerobic (resistance training) and aerobic (jogging or cycling);
  • Deep relaxation 15 - 30 minutes daily;
  • Deep breath often throughout your day, especially when you notice that you're stressed;

Next month I'll address several Stress Breaks to help protect your well-being.

About the Author

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M.S.www.jackieferguson.com In 1976, after returning from 2 years in the Peace Corps in Colombia, South America, Jackie earned her Master's degree in Community Counseling/Psychology from her home state of Minnesota. She worked for several years as a Program Director at the Ruth Cooper Mental Health Center in Ft. Myers, FL, and then founded InterAction Associates, a management development and training firm.

For over 25 years she has designed and presented keynotes and workshops on stress management, diversity - including generational diversity, customer-service and communication skills. Her mission is to inspire you to live a conscious life of personal responsibility in your relations with yourself and others, which she weaves into every presentation to help you "wake up" to your responsibility in making your desired changes.

Literally hundreds-of-thousands of people throughout North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and points in between have benefitted from her programs. She has also authored four audio programs and her recently published book, Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain & Simple, is now available at www.letyourbodywin.com.

Jackie is also a Professional & Stress Coach helping people achieve more success with less stress. You can request her weekly emailed column, Stress for Success, which appears in a Gannett Newspaper, the Ft. Myers News-Press' Tuesday Healthy Living section.