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Can Stress Make You Sick? Fever, Blood Pressure And More

Most people are affected by stress at some point in their lives. In fact, 2022 data from Ipsos found that at least 52% of Americans reported feeling so stressed that they felt they could not cope or deal at least once in the past year[1].But what happens when stress is experienced over a long period of time, and what effect does it have on a person’s health?

Find out more about stress, including the differences between acute and chronic stress, the symptoms you might experience, the illnesses and health concerns associated with stress, as well as tips for managing it in daily life.

What Is Stress?

Stress is the body’s response to stressors, which could be external or internal. An external stressor could be a challenging event or situation, while an internal stressor might be a negative thought or worry.

“Stress can be positive when it helps you complete a task or react to a life-threatening situation,” says Matthew Pierson, M.D., a psychiatrist and the medical director for ERC Pathlight in Maryland. “Or it can be negative, [like] when it leads you to overreact emotionally or make poor choices.”

In 2022, respondents of the American Psychological Society’s Stress in America survey pointed to money worries, including inflation, and the political climate as sources of stress in their lives. The same survey suggested that people also experienced a lot of stress due to the threat of gun violence and crime, along with feeling unprotected[2].

During a period of stress, hormones are released in the body, which can increase your pulse, make your muscles more tense and put your brain on high alert. These reactions may be beneficial if experienced in the short term by helping us react quickly to challenging situations, but longer periods of stress can become problematic. “If stress is not dealt with, it can become chronic and lead to long-term health consequences,” explains Dr Pierson.

Chronic vs. Acute Stress

“Both chronic and acute stress can be severely debilitating and require intervention, such as therapy,” explains Michele Leno, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist based in Detroit, Michigan and the host of the talk show Mind Matters with Dr. Michele. Here are some key differences between chronic and acute stress:

Acute Stress

“Acute stress is more short-term and occurs in response to a recent life change or loss,” explains Dr. Leno. It may be a reaction to something significant, such as a scary situation or event, or from something more ordinary, such as trying a new activity or challenge or having an important deadline at work. “Acute stress is expected to resolve more quickly than chronic stress,” says Dr. Leno. As such, acute stress usually isn’t a cause for concern, and it’s generally experienced by most people at some point in their lives.

However, experts note that if acute stress happens very frequently and the person does not have effective coping strategies to recover from these acute stress episodes, it can lead to negative health and mental health consequences.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is stress that is experienced over a period of weeks, months or even longer. Experiencing stress for a long period of time has a negative effect on the body, and may put individuals at risk of a number of serious health conditions including diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, anxiety and menstrual problems. It may also cause pre-existing health conditions to worsen.

“Chronic stress may result from poor stress management, social disadvantages or an existing mental health condition,” says Dr. Leno. Chronic stress may also present with symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, anxiety, headaches and stomach problems, says Marissa Alert, Ph.D., a licensed clinical health psychologist and the founder of MDA Wellness, a company focused on treating stress and burnout based in Boston.

How Does Stress Impact the Body?

“In the short term, stress triggers the body’s fight-or-flight system,” says Dr. Pierson. “This worked great for our ancestors dealing with saber-toothed tigers. But it doesn’t help us today with traffic jams or work deadlines.” As stress triggers the release of hormones in the body, it causes a number of physical reactions to take place. Symptoms of acute stress can include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Tensing of muscles

When stress carries on for a long period of time, the body can be impacted in a number of ways. “Our bodies are designed to handle occasional stress, not a constant state of it,” explains Dr. Alert.

Chronic stress can cause symptoms such as:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Sleepiness
  • Headaches
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Lacking energy
  • Irritability
  • Digestive problems
  • Feeling sad or emotionally withdrawn
  • Experiencing excessive worry
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Skin-picking or nail biting
  • Cloudy or unfocused thinking
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol
  • A change in behavior, such as staying home more often
  • Increased risk for clinically significant depression, anxiety and other mental health symptoms
  • Feelings of isolation and loneliness
  • Trouble making decisions
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Increased risk of adverse health outcomes

“Stress is not just in your head; it’s a full-body experience,” says Dr. Alert.

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Illnesses and Conditions Impacted by Stress

When stress continues over a long period of time, the body is impacted in a number of ways, which can have an impact on additional illnesses or health conditions. “These mechanisms lead to burnout and wear-and-tear on the body,” says Kelsey M. Latimer, Ph.D., a psychologist based in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and the founder of KLM Psychological Services, a concierge therapy provider. “Our mind becomes exhausted and our body starts to attack us.”

Conditions impacted by stress include:

Heart Disease

Many studies show the impact stress can have on the heart. Research from 2019 notes that psychosocial stress, which is caused by social threats, such as exclusion or judgments by others, is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). It also notes the impact stress has on the cardiovascular system depends on the level and duration of stress, meaning that severe chronic stress may lead to higher risks.

A small 2020 study also suggests that stress isn’t always considered when evaluating individuals at risk of cardiovascular disease, but that it should be taken more seriously as a potential inciting factor. The study notes people with stressful work situations, those with a history of abuse and past traumatic events have a higher occurrence of heart disease.

High Blood Pressure

A 2018 review examining the impact of stress on hypertension (high blood pressure) notes that chronic stress can lead to an increase in blood pressure. High blood pressure can put individuals at risk of serious conditions such as stroke and heart disease.

One 2019 study of 1,829 Black adults suggests that high levels of stress experienced over time led to an increased risk of developing high blood pressure. The study also noted that Black individuals may experience higher levels of stress caused by discrimination and socioeconomic factors, placing them at a higher risk of hypertension.

Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety is the body’s response to stress. However, when anxiety continues long after the stressful situation has resolved and interferes with daily life, individuals may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. “If the stress reactions are not slowed, then the body eventually becomes exhausted,” says Dr. Latimer. “This can lead to long-term changes such as anxiety/panic disorder or depression and other conditions that negatively impact our health.”

While a number of different factors can cause depression, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that stressful situations—such as unexpected diagnoses, financial difficulties, abuse, grief and major life changes—can all contribute to the development of the condition.

Thirty-three percent of adults who responded to the American Psychological Society’s Stress in America survey suggested that they’d experienced sadness or depression as a result of stress, while 34% had felt anxious or nervous because of stress.

Insomnia

In 2022, a survey conducted by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center reported that almost one in five Americans had difficulty getting to sleep at night. The American Psychological Society’s Stress in America survey also reported that 32% of adults who took part in the survey had experienced a change in their sleeping habits due to stress.

Meanwhile, a 2018 study examining the link between stress-induced worry and insomnia states that stressful and traumatic life events often had a notable impact on how well a person sleeps. The study also points to the dangers of not getting enough sleep, reporting a link between those with insomnia and metabolic disorders and cardiovascular disease.

Fertility Issues

Research suggests a link between stress and fertility issues, although it’s not always clear which comes first. One study found a link between higher perceived self-reported stress and a slight reduction in pregnancy. The study also suggests that stress could lead to menstrual cycle changes and a lack of desire for sexual intercourse, both of which may impact a person’s chances of getting pregnant.

A 2018 study examining the link between a person’s quality of life and their fertility found that women experiencing higher levels of distress also experienced a small reduction in their ability to conceive. However, the study pointed out that more research is needed to establish whether fertility issues causes stress, vice versa or both.

Fever

A 2015 study in Temperature: Medical Physiology and Beyond explores the connection between stress and a rise in body temperature. The study suggests that stress may cause a psychogenic fever, defined as a psychosomatic condition in which a person’s body temperature rises in times of chronic stress or when exposed to emotional events.

Still, research on the connection between stress and fever is limited, and much of the research is limited to case studies.

Tips on Managing Stress

To prevent or help relieve long-term stress, it’s important to implement coping strategies.

  • Meditation: Meditation practices focus on calming the mind and improving focus, often using breathing techniques and stillness. “Meditate before starting your day,” suggests Dr. Leno. “This will help you feel more grounded and decide what you want to accomplish.”
  • Exercise: “Even a five-minute workout can improve your mood and help you think more clearly and creatively,” adds Dr. Leno.
  • Breathing techniques: “Relaxation skills such as deep breathing can be done anywhere,” says Dr. Pierson.
  • Schedule rest periods: “Plan downtime in your day as part of your schedule and start to see that downtime as just as important as any business meeting you might have,” advises Dr. Latimer.
  • Manage your workload: “You can only do so much in a day,” says Dr. Leno. “Adding more to your plate than you can handle can cause you to feel unnecessarily frustrated.”
  • Socialize: “Spend time with people who make you feel good, not guarded or defensive,” suggests Dr. Leno.
  • Eat well: Dr. Pierson points to eating nutritious foods as one of the ways people can stave off stress. “Integrating healthy habits is essential,” he says. A healthy diet provides the energy our bodies need to handle stressful events, supports the immune system and aids in the repair of damaged cells.
  • Seek professional help: If stress becomes unmanageable, seeking help from a doctor or therapist could help. “It can be valuable to seek support from professionals when needed,” says Dr. Alert.

Ultimately, everyone is different, and people deal with stress in different ways. “Managing stress isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach; it’s about discovering what works best for you and integrating it into your life,” explains Dr. Alert.


https://www.forbes.com/health/mind/can-stress-make-you-sick/

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