Let me begin by stating the obvious. Stress is bad for you. I have first hand experience with the physical ramifications stress and anxiety can take on the body.
I started having stomach problems during my second year of law school – 6 years ago. I lost 35 pounds (which is a lot for a guy who weighed 185 to start with). I’ve had multiple stomach scopes. I’ve been on every stomach medication (OTC and Rx) you could name. I’ve had my gallbladder removed. And I still have problems from time to time but all my diagnostic tests say that there is absolutely nothing physically wrong. This had led my doctors, loved ones, and – reluctantly – me to conclude that the symptoms are stress related.
You’re probably thinking, “why doesn’t this guy just chill out?” I think the same thing. I don’t have these symptoms all the time. Actually, it’s been a while since I’ve experienced them at all. It’s like when people say to get more sleep or exercise more often. Dealing with stress and anxiety is something I’d like to do, of course, but I kind of forget until it takes an immediate toll on my health.
The video below is from TED Ed and was written by Sharon Bergquist, a professor of medicine at Emory University. It shows how worrying affects the body and outlines what scientists know so far about the connection between stress and sickness.
In summary, when we’re stressed, the adrenal glands ramp up the release of cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. Adrenaline speeds up the heart and raises blood pressure. Cortisol causes changes in the blood vessels that can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. And then – my problem – the brain relays stress signals to the guy, which changes up its routine to allow the body to focus on the stressor. This can lead to digestive problems and affect the composition of gut bacteria.
Cortisol can increase appetite and prompt the body to put on “deep-belly fat.” That fat releases compounds that can raise the risk of developing chronic diseases. Chronic stress can lower the functioning of the immune system, slowing healing time and making us more vulnerable to infection.
Of course, stress is the most damaging for those who experience all the time. While working long hours in a high-stress job can certainly be unhealthy, constant stress about paying the mortgage or affording satisfactory childcare is worse.
To lessen the health consequences, Bergquist recommends viewing our stressors as challenges we can control and master. Easier said than done, but given the toll its takes on our health, it’s probably worth trying.