Can Stress Make Me Sick?

Photo by Sarah Rose (Creative Commons)

Can stress make me sick? It’s a question I hear a lot from my patients, many of whom lead very busy lives with high-stress jobs and what feels like little time to relax.

The idea that environmental stressors can contribute to physical illness – rather than producing mental distress only – gets people’s attention, and for good reason. In fact, there is an entire field of study, known as psychoneuroimmunology, dedicated to researching the relationship between psychological factors and the immune system. Research shows that there is indeed a relationship between stress and impaired immune functioning, and our cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems may be impaired by stress as well.

Although stress is not the only factor in many kinds of illness, such as heart disease or ulcers, it certainly doesn’t promote good physical health.

This begs the question: how can a person de-stress?

Although minimizing all of the stressors in a person’s life can be a big undertaking and an ongoing process, here are some quick stress management techniques that can be implemented easily and immediately:

  1. Just breathe. Studies show that regular meditation practice can significantly reduce an individual’s perceived stress levels. One basic form of meditation involves simply focusing on your breath. Carve out 5 minutes in the morning, afternoon, or evening to do nothing other than breathe, and enjoy the respite from your otherwise busy day.
  1. Go to your happy place. Or, at least, imagine you’re there. Research suggests that guided imagery and self-led visualization promote relaxation and reduce stress, in turn boosting your immune system. Take a few minutes to transport yourself from your office chair to your favorite beach, forest, or mountain top when you need a break from your day.
  1. Get your blood flowing. Exercise is another factor commonly linked to stress reduction and mood improvement. While it may not be practical to get a 60-minute sweat session in on your lunch break, you can probably take 10 or 15 minutes to walk up and down a few flights of stairs or walk around the office building at a brisk pace. Maybe you could even sneak a few push-ups in at your desk without eliciting too many strange looks from your coworkers! Sometimes expending a little physical energy is all you need to direct your mental energy back in a productive vein.

So – can stress make you sick? In a word – yes, it does appear that stress can at least contribute to immune, cardiovascular, digestive, and other physical ailments, even though it’s not the sole cause of these problems.  The good news is that there are a number of stress management techniques that can be practiced, even in the midst of a hectic day – and if this feels like too much to tackle on your own, consider talking to a professional about how you can effectively manage stress in your life.

If you have questions about stress-sickness, get in touch with me via Twitter @DrVBosson!