How Stress Can Make You Sick (And What to Do About It)

How many times have you struggled through a stressful period and thought you had gotten through it, only to fall ill afterwards? It’s a pretty common event, and it even has its own name- “The let-down syndrome”.

During periods of stress, the immune system is stimulated to release certain hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to fight the good fight, and then when the stress is gone, the immune system actually becomes suppressed. And it doesn’t just go back to square one, it’s often depleted and vulnerable to infection and viruses that have been hanging around in the body just waiting for the right opportunity to bloom.

When you are under pressure, these stress hormones protect you against the perception of pain. The hypothalamus part of the brain tells the immune system to go to work and then when the stress is gone, it also tells it to stop the fighting. That saying “it took all my strength to get through that” has real meaning here.

When you have chronic stress over a long period of time, this effect can contribute to long-term problems for your heart and blood vessels. The consistent increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure increases the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke and also contributes to inflammation in the body.

It doesn’t matter if the stress is physical or emotional, the effect is the same. They both trigger an inflammatory response, which later leads to the the let-down effect. This can also lead to what I will call “the Domino’s effect” – the effect where the surge and dropping of stress hormones knocks down dopamine levels in your brain, which triggers behavior like overeating take out pizza and even substance abuse in the effort try to raise dopamine levels and feel good again. That’s just another way to let disease in.

So how do you beat this vicious cycle?  The best way is to work on ways to prevent the stress levels from happening in the first place by getting plenty of exercise and sleep, eating healthy and following these methods I have outlined in an earlier blog about meditation.

Learn the warning signs.  Stress just doesn’t fall on you all at once. It usually builds slowly. Knowing it’s coming can cut it off before it gets too strong. Be aware of your triggers, like insomnia or overeating and take appropriate actions to reduce your stress levels.

Make sure to relax at some point in your day to ease the pressure. All work and no play is an invitation to stress. Cut back on commitments. You don’t have to do everything and be everything to everyone. And lastly, think positively. Assertiveness, self awareness and creative thinking can not only reduce your stress levels, but keep you from becoming the victim of being let down by stress ever again.

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