Is it possible to worry yourself sick?

Scientists have long known that stress exacerbates a host of health problems; but now they’ve discovered that chronic stress doesn’t merely complicate certain diseases, it can actually cause it.

Certainly, people who are stressed end up eating, drinking and smoking more, they tend to sleep and exercise less – tendencies that have obvious negative consequences for our health. But scientists have discovered a much more nuanced picture.

Stress isn’t just a feeling. It’s a physiological response to a threat which causes havoc to the body’s ability to operate the way it’s supposed to. When you’re stressed, your body responds. Your blood vessels constrict. Your blood pressure and pulse rise. You breathe faster and your bloodstream is flooded with hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.

When stress exposes the body to a relentless stream of cortisol, cells become damaged and desensitised causing inflammation to go wild, which over time, can spark certain diseases.

Here are a few conditions that may be caused by stress:

  • Colds and flu. When under continuous stress, cells of the immune system are unable to respond and consequently produce levels of inflammation that leads to disease.
  • Stress hormones stimulate a preference for foods that are loaded with sugar, starch and fat. Stress causes higher levels of the hormone cortisol, and that seems to increase the amount of fat that’s deposited in the abdomen. We all know that fat in the belly poses greater health risks than fat on the legs or hips – and unfortunately, that’s where people with high stress seem to store it.
  • Heart disease. Stress increases blood pressure, pulse rate, and raises blood cholesterol levels. Over time, it damages the heart with increased wear and tear.
  • Stress increases bad behaviour such as unhealthy eating and excessive drinking. It also raises the glucose levels of people with Type 2 diabetes.
  • Stress is considered one of the most common triggers for headaches and migraines.
  • Depression and anxiety. Stress throws several neurotransmitter systems – such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine – out of balance, negatively affecting mood, appetite and libido. Permanently elevated cortisol levels can eventually alter the hippocampus and damage brain cells.

Still, many of us remain sceptical about stress management. After all, stressful jobs, families to raise, tight finances and no time to spare … that’s never going to change. What can change, however, is the way that you respond to stress.

So, fight back by trying a few basic stress relief techniques. Breathe deeply. You can do this anywhere, at your desk or in your car. As you breathe out, relax a specific muscle group. Start with your jaw and on the next breath, relax your shoulders. Focus on the moment. When you’re stressed you’re probably living in the past or the future. Live NOW. Keep your problems in perspective and reframe your situation. Is what you’re worrying about now going to matter in 5 years from now?

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another” – William James.


DISCLAIMER: The information on this website is for educational purposes only, and is not intended as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you are experiencing symptoms or need health advice, please consult a healthcare professional.