Can Stress Cause Sickness? Yes, It Can (And Here’s How).
By Radley Griffin, M.D.
At Griffin Concierge Medical, we’re always advocating for ways to increase longevity and reduce illness.
Part of that involves looking at some of the causes of sickness. And in our highly stressed society today, it’s worth asking: Can stress cause sickness?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes.
From Rest to React
It may not shock you that people in high-stress jobs tend to have lower life expectancies than those in lower-stress jobs.
Take, for example, firefighters. And we’re not talking about the risks of the job itself.
Between calls, firefighters are spending time in the firehouse relaxing, cooking, hanging out, and doing chores. Then the fire alarm goes off. Within seconds, everyone drops what they’re doing and sprints to the truck.
Fight-or-flight mechanisms kick into full force at the drop of a hat.
This regular, repeated shift from “Relaxed” to “Go Mode” happens several times every single day, and it wreaks havoc on the body.
A Case of the Mondays
The emergency worker’s high-stress environment represents a microcosm of what typical Americans experience in a normal work week.
Many of us are in working mode Monday through Friday. We cram a lot of stress into those five days, and we suddenly stop for the weekend to rest. Then we’re back to action on Monday. Work, work, stop; work, work, stop.
We go through a weekly cycle of high stress, weekend rest, and then sudden high stress again — and it takes a toll on our bodies.
According to a study published in the American Heart Journal, which looked at more than 156,000 hospital admissions for heart attacks, the most “popular” day for a heart attack is Monday.
Yes, multiple factors probably contribute to Monday heart attacks, but this study looked particularly at stress. And it’s no coincidence that Monday is one of our most stressful days.
So why does stress, especially long-term and repeated stress, cause sickness?
What Does Stress Do to Your Body?
Stress is a survival mechanism, and it produces some physical reactions in our bodies to protect us from danger. We’ve all experienced these to one degree or another.
Picture this: As you’re driving, a car cuts in front of you and you have to swerve to one side to miss it.
Those familiar fight-or-flight feelings kick in; your stomach jolts like you’re on a rollercoaster, your heart races, your hands get sweaty, and maybe the hair on the back of your neck stands up.
Your body is protecting you. When you recognized danger, your blood pressure increased, your heart rate sped up, and you started pumping stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol through your system. Everything in your body sped up to get extra resources to your brain, heart, eyes, and muscles so they could react quickly.
The ironic thing is, the stress reaction that saves us from immediate danger can actually cause us long-term harm.
Can Stress Cause Sickness?
Although we can’t avoid some stress, our bodies aren’t meant to operate in high stress all the time. We can’t run on stress hormones at this scale without some consequences.
Stress hormones are meant to be released as-needed for occasional protection. Take for example, fighting an infection. You don’t get the flu or COVID every week. If you get them, you get them occasionally, and your immune system and stress response respond to fight them off.
If that response is constantly engaged, then it’s going to become exhausted.
This is true for stress from more than just illness. Whenever the body remains in a state of constant or repeated stress, it also constantly releases those stress hormones. Much like an engine that’s always being revved, it suffers some serious wear and tear. And eventually, it’s going to break down.
That breakdown comes in many forms. Maybe you start getting sick more often, or your blood pressure goes up. Your body is telling you it needs to rest. But many of us don’t get the message until stress causes a sickness we can’t ignore — like a heart attack.
This is why it’s so important to know your numbers and pay attention to them. If you’re doing regular baseline blood work, you’ll be able to see when stress starts causing problems and when you need to give your body a rest.
How Does Stress Affect Other Aspects of Our Lives?
There’s a vicious cycle we see a lot: Stress begets anxiety; anxiety causes more stress.
For many of us, there doesn’t seem to be a way out of our stress. Instead, we find ways to treat our stress with various forms of self-medication.
For some people that means drinking alcohol, eating unhealthy foods, or smoking cigarettes to calm themselves down. For others, it might be less intentional: Stress causes them to sleep poorly, which they drink caffeine to counteract. They don’t exercise because they’re too tired or too busy.
These habits often pile together and — along with the wear and tear from stress itself — cause a collection of poor health outcomes.
How Does Stress Cause Sickness?
Many major illnesses, like heart disease, aren’t sudden developments. Instead, we tend to collect conditions as we age. They build up over a long period of time, eventually leading to something more serious.
Perhaps you’ve seen this commercial for a type 2 diabetes medication: A fit young EMT jumps into action, swinging her blond hair out of the way as she rushes to help. The problem? This woman is NOT a type 2 diabetic.
She has none of the typical hallmarks of the disease, such as an expanded waistline or greater age. The pharmaceutical company is trying to normalize type 2 diabetes as if it’s something anyone can just catch, even healthy, fit young folks.
In the vast majority of cases, this is simply not true. People don’t just get type 2 diabetes. It comes about through a combination of lifestyle factors over time, and stress is one of them. All those habitual side effects of stress — like eating sugar, drinking too much alcohol, or sleeping poorly — contribute to move your body toward diabetes.
The point here is that we need to recognize the attempt to normalize stress and bodily disrepair, and we need to reject it.
What Are the Best Ways to Reduce Stress Without Medication?
Name It to Tame It
We love the saying, “Name it to tame it.” The first step to reducing your stress is to understand how it manifests.
Can you identify when you’re stressed out? Then can you identify why you’re stressed out? By building your awareness of what stress looks like for you, you’ll be able to identify and address it more clearly.
Note Your Behaviors
Once you can recognize when you’re stressed, either in the moment or long term, it’s helpful to consider how you cope with that stress. Do you take a walk in the park? Or do you drive down to the liquor store?
If you notice some unhealthy habits, think about how you can replace them with healthier ones.
You can also consider what aspects of life you could tweak to mitigate stress. If getting the kids up and ready in the morning is stressful for you and not your spouse, for example, maybe your spouse would be interested in taking over those responsibilities.
Exercise is fantastic physically, but another major benefit of exercise is the time it gives your mind to take a break from stress and recharge.
Sometimes members tell us they don’t need to exercise because their job is physical. It’s great to have a physically active job, but it’s still a job; your mind is actively engaged with what you’re working on, what you need to do next, who to talk to, etc.
To make exercise more beneficial, look for opportunities for physical activity that have nothing to do with your sources of stress. It can be as simple as strapping a leash on the dog or the kids into a stroller after work.
Stress usually occurs when you’re beholden to something else. Taking a little time back for yourself can provide a lot of relief, and meditation is a great way to do that. Whether you do it on your own or using a guided audio or visual meditation, this age-old practice forces you to concentrate on something other than your fears, anxieties, and stressors.
Stress Reduction Is a Group Effort
We believe stress reduction is a group effort. Your partner, friends, and healthcare team are all great resources to help you identify stress in your life and how you cope with it. People you trust can provide insights from another perspective, and they can support you as you find ways to reduce and manage ongoing stress.
This is what GCM aims to provide through the relationships we cultivate with our members. We have your back, and we’re here to help you address stress, avoid sickness, and live your healthiest life.