Stress does not cause diseases, but by affecting our immune system, it may make us more vulnerable to getting ill, and influence how fast we heal.
People who are stressed are more likely to get diseases, and less likely to recover fast. This is because stress diverts energy from the immune system, inhibiting the activities. It may slow down healing of surgical wounds, make you more vulnerable to a disease and worsen its course. Chronic stress also triggers persistent inflammation, which increases the risks of heart disease and depression.
A study in 2012 found out that people experiencing constant stress were less resistant to a common cold than those who did not experience stress. When under stress, the immune system is unable to respond to a disease and cannot protect itself as fast, leading to a higher chance of us getting sick.
Stress inevitably affects the way we make decisions, and can also bring changes in our lifestyle. As a result, it increases the risk for diabetes, which is especially true for overweight individuals. Moreover, stress and its consequences are also likely to reflect in our everyday habits, making us prone to unhealthy lifestyle, high-fat diet choices, and further increasing the risks. Stress hormones also make us more likely to select sugary, fat foods, but studies also show that stress may also reduce the speed with which we burn calories.
Being stressed also alters the acid concentration in the stomach. This, in turn, affects other organs in our bodies, and can lead to ulcers. Although researchers are yet to agree on what is the most common reason for ulcers and acid reflux, the relationship between stress levels and acid levels is evident – stress makes our body more open to bacteria and is a critical factor in digestion problems, acid levels and heartburn.
Is all stress bad for you?
However, the relationship between stress, the immune system and health is complex. Studies show that not all stress has negative effect: short-term stress can actually boost the immune system. It is chronic stress that has the most negative impact on our wellbeing and health, and has the power to affect our immune system that ultimately manifest an illness.
Stress and mental health
But physical illnesses aren't the only consequence of chronic stress. What it has has most impact on is our mental illness. While it can affect our physical wellbeing and result in physical illnesses like a flu, herpes or any other infection, chronic stress is even more likely to have an impact on neuroses, leading to depression or other psychiatric illnesses. It throws several brain neurotransmitter systems out of balance, negatively affecting mood, appetite, sleep. Some severely depressed people have permanently elevated cortisol levels, which can eventually alter the hippocampus and permanently damage brain cells.
When does stress affect us the most?
Stress affects us the most when events that cause it are uncontrollable. The feeling of helplessness, inability to control events around us, real of perceived lack of control, all have long term effects on our health. Loss of control also increases our stress hormones, blood pressure, and reduce the responses of our immune system.
Coping with stress
Different people deal with stress through the use of different coping strategies. One way to do so is by targeting the source of stress and changing the way we respond to it. Another way is by avoiding the cause, and instead focusing on our emotional needs. Both ways are valid ways of coping, and selecting one of another depends on the stress levels, its causes and individual preferences.
One important way to handle stress, or reduce the impact it has on you, is social support. Studies show that older women caring after ill family members, were more likely to have faster wound healing and higher vaccines' effectiveness if they had a strong network of friends and family who supported them. Those lacking the social support healed slower. Belonging to social groups and networks remains and important factor in health and emotional wellbeing, and helps alleviate the effects that stress has on our body.
When stress is affecting your everyday activities, how you feel and what you can do – it is always a good idea to seek help of a medical professional, as long-term effects of stress can be irreversible.