How Does Stress Affect Your Physical Health?

What would you do if a friend called to tell you she was in excruciating pain that left her unable to walk? Would you call her weak and tell her to just shrug it off? Or would you insist that she go to the hospital – and perhaps even take her there yourself?

Most likely, you’d take the latter approach. But what if the tables were turned, and you were the one experiencing that same severe pain?

Many of us like to maintain that we’re strong, even indestructible. We convince ourselves that we can handle any amount of physical or emotional pain, either by repressing it, ignoring it, or fussing over other people’s problems instead.

But this approach simply doesn’t work. It endangers our health, and it masks our inner weaknesses. By denying our problems, we avoid addressing them. Our bodies repeatedly tell us no, yet we refuse to listen – until it’s too late. It’s high time we confronted the underlying causes of our illnesses and took back control of our health.

Below is what this article covers:

What is the Connection Between Physical and Mental Health?

One of the most common health conditions in the world is heart disease. What do you think the condition is caused by?

How Does Stress Affect Your Physical Health?

You’re probably thinking it’s some combination of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. And it’s true that these do contribute to heart disease. 

But the greatest risk factor of all – more than any of the others combined – is actually job strain. What’s more, work-related stress is a major contributor to elevated blood pressure and cholesterol.

For years, the prevailing theory in medicine has been one of mind-body dualism. This theory states that the mind’s inner workings have nothing to do with the rest of the body. 

Dualism pushes doctors to study the two separately, to proclaim that our bodies function in isolation from their environments. But it ignores the deep and proven connection between body and mind.

Despite dualism’s prevalence, there’s compelling evidence that it doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s where a new field of medicine comes in – psychoneuroimmunology, which studies the processes through which emotions affect physiology.

Countless studies show how our daily experiences and stresses impact our immune systems. One, for instance, found that medical students’ immune systems were suppressed under the pressure of looming final exams. Additionally, the loneliest of these students suffered the greatest negative impact on their immune defenses.

How can this happen? Well, it all starts with emotional stimuli. Emotions are electrical, chemical, and hormonal discharges from the human nervous system. 

These influence, and are influenced by, the functioning of our major organs and immune defenses. Stress, in particular, works to disarm our immune systems. This is bound to have major effects – and it can even cause chronic illness.

How Does Stress Affect Every Body System?

Think for a second about the things that stress you out the most. Whatever stressors come to mind, they’re likely to be quite different from those of other people.

This is because an essential component of experiencing stress is the particular processing system that interprets any given stressor. We all have the same basic processing system – that is, the brain and nervous system. 

But the definition of a stressor depends greatly on the person assigning meaning to it. Losing a job, for instance, would probably be much more stressful to a person living paycheck-to-paycheck than a high-level executive with a large cushion of savings.

At the end of the day, all forms of stress stem from the same feeling – that something you perceive as necessary for survival is under threat.

The impacts of stress can be felt across many parts of the body. But it primarily affects three systems: the hormonal, immune, and digestive systems.

When you first become aware of a threat, your hypothalamus, which is in the brain stem, releases a hormone called CRH. This hormone travels to the pituitary, at the base of your skull, which then releases a different hormone called ACTH.

The blood carries ACTH to the adrenals, located in the fatty tissue on top of your kidneys. The adrenals then secrete cortisol, which acts on almost every tissue and organ in the body. 

It suppresses the immune system, diverts blood away from your organs to your muscles, and gets your heart pumping faster. Its goal is to make you hyper-focused on the threat at hand – so you’re better able to react.

Cortisol helps us survive in acute, short-term instances. But when stress becomes chronic, lasting for long periods, high levels of cortisol can destroy tissue, raise blood pressure, and damage the heart.

One study looked at the effects of chronic stress on the activity of a type of immune cells known as natural killers, or NK cells. These have the ability to destroy malignant cells, such as cancer. The study showed that in chronically stressed caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease, NK cell functioning was significantly suppressed. On top of that, any wounds the caregivers got took an average of nine days longer to heal than those in the control group. The caregivers were also less responsive to immunization against influenza.

This is how stress can begin to attack the body.

A Study of Stress Affecting Your Body 

Rachel is a young woman who grew up in constant conflict with her older brother, whom she perceived to be her father’s favorite.

As a child, Rachel was the quintessential well-behaved little girl. As an adult, she worked hard to keep up this image. One year, on Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year celebration – she was at her mother’s home, helping to prepare dinner for her family.

But Rachel didn’t intend to stay and eat with everyone else. Instead, she would leave at 4:00 p.m. so her brother, sister-in-law, and niece could enjoy the holiday together. Even though she did all the work in cooking and preparing, she didn’t allow herself to participate in the dinner – all because she knew her brother didn’t want her there.

However, before she could leave, Rachel began to experience extreme pain in one of her legs, where she had rheumatoid arthritis. 

Not normally one to verbally express pain, this time, Rachel couldn’t stop screaming. In the end, she had to go to the emergency room. It was a clear instance of stress causing a flare-up of her disease.

Our immune defenses must be kept in careful balance. Otherwise, they can end up harming the very tissues they’re meant to defend.

 In some circumstances, this can lead to people being diagnosed with various autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Autoimmune diseases involve the immune system attacking the body, and damaging joints, connective tissue, or organs in the process.

Although autoimmune diseases can be caused by a multitude of factors, many people who have them struggle with establishing boundaries. 

This means they experience confusion between self and non-self, and are constantly putting other people’s needs first – while repressing their own. 

The stress of their emotional repression is mirrored in their immune systems, which fail to understand which cells to attack – and which to leave alone.

A study done in 1965 can help to illustrate this. It looked at the healthy relatives of women with rheumatoid arthritis. Fourteen of the 36 patients in this study tested positive for one of the hallmarks of the disease – an antibody called rheumatoid factor, or RF. 

This group scored significantly higher than RF-negative participants on psychological scales reflecting the inhibition of their anger – and concern about the social acceptability of their behaviors.

The presence of RF suggested that emotional repression, and the resulting stress, had already initiated immune reactivity in these women’s bodies. 

Should these women have experienced further stressful events, it’s quite possible they would have developed rheumatoid arthritis later in their lives.

How Do Environmental Factors and Destructive Coping Styles Contribute to Diseases?

It’s hard to believe that anyone would actively choose helplessness in the face of a crisis. But, in fact, learned helplessness is a common coping style.

Learned helplessness leads people toward inaction. Even when given the opportunity to do so, they don’t extricate themselves from stressful situations. 

Those could be anything from a dysfunctional relationship to a stifling, monotonous job. Sadly, this unhealthy coping mechanism inevitably leads to increased levels of stress over time.

There is a patient called Natalie, who had developed learned helplessness to cope with various stressors in her life. During the spring and summer of 1996, her stress increased to extreme levels. In March, her 16-year-old son was discharged from drug rehab. 

Then, in July, her husband, Bill, underwent surgery for a malignant tumor. Later, they found out the cancer had spread to Bill’s liver.

Meanwhile, Natalie had been experiencing occasional fatigue, dizziness, and ringing in her ears. In May, she experienced a bout of vertigo, but a CT scan showed no abnormalities. 

In July, an MRI finally led to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, or MS, an illness that impairs the functioning of the cells in the central nervous system.

The causes of MS are a mystery. It’s possible to inherit a genetic predisposition to the disease, but you can’t inherit the disease itself. 

Moreover, even people who have all the necessary genes often don’t end up getting MS. Therefore, experts believe its onset must be triggered by environmental factors – such as stress.

In fact, studies have found that 85 percent of MS patients had experienced the onset of symptoms in the wake of highly stressful events. 

Similarly, MS patients suffering from extreme stresses, like relationship difficulties or financial insecurity, are almost four times as likely to suffer exacerbation of their symptoms.

The underlying problem, however, isn’t stressful events themselves. Instead, it’s environmentally conditioned helplessness in the face of those problems. 

Despite her MS, Natalie spent her time tirelessly caring for her husband – even though he was having an affair, drank heavily, and regularly embarrassed her in public. 

Natalie, unfortunately, had developed learned helplessness as a way to cope with her husband’s transgressions. This undoubtedly contributed to her developing MS.

By never saying no, Natalie’s emotions became repressed. She no longer actively experienced stressful events as stressful. But while she may have felt fine, her immune system had been left wide open to attack.

How Do Traumatic Events Affect People’s Perception of Physiological Pain?

Has anyone ever told you to “go with your gut?” It’s common advice – and quite sound. That’s because your brain and your intestines, or gut, are in constant communication.

The brain relays data to the gut from sensory organs like the skin, eyes, and ears. But first, the brain’s emotional centers interpret that data. Then, the physiological events in the gut reinforce the brain’s interpretation. This leads to the “gut feelings” we’re consciously aware of.

However, when we have too many “gut-wrenching” experiences, like trauma or chronic stress, the neurological communications channel can become oversensitized. 

This can lead to nerves being set off by weaker stimuli. In other words, the oversensitized person will experience greater pain than someone else would under similar circumstances.

Gut dysfunction as a result of neurological factors is particularly apparent in people with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. IBS is considered a functional disorder because, although it impairs the body’s functions, its symptoms can’t be explained by infection or any other abnormality.

In patients with IBS and other functional disorders, there’s a high incidence of sexual and physical abuse. This could be one factor that alters their normal nervous system response, making them more sensitive to stressful stimuli.

To shed light on this characteristic, one study artificially distended participants’ colons by inflating a type of balloon inside of them. People suffering from functional disorders exhibited hypersensitivity to the distension, experiencing much greater pain than control groups.

But increased levels of pain weren’t the only thing that set those suffering from functional disorders apart. Brain scans showed activation of their prefrontal cortex while the balloon was inflated, something not observed with the control group. 

This demonstrated that the brains of the patients with functional disorders interpreted physiological stimuli as more extreme.

The prefrontal cortex is where the brain stores emotional memories; it’s also what helps us interpret present stimuli in light of past experiences. 

If this part of the brain is being activated, it means that something of emotional significance is occurring. But activating it isn’t a conscious decision – it’s merely the result of nerve pathways being triggered.

So, if psychological damage is the root cause of functional disorders, it makes sense that psychological intervention could be effective in treating them. 

In one study, a short series of two-hour group therapy sessions taught IBS patients to use better behavioral coping strategies. This led to a reduction in abdominal complaints that held up even at a follow-up exam two years later.

Why are Your Personality Types Relevant to Certain Illnesses?

In 1998, at the ninth International ALS Symposium, two neurologists presented a paper called “Why Are Patients with ALS So Nice?” 

In it, one of the authors made an interesting claim about the technologists who conduct tests to determine whether patients have ALS, a disease that attacks the nerve cells controlling muscle movement. 

The technologists often accompanied their results with comments like “This patient cannot have ALS, he’s not nice enough.” Strangely, these predictions almost always turned out to be correct.

Now, niceness doesn’t seem like a particularly scientific measure. Nevertheless, the study noted that niceness is considered to be a major component of the “ALS personality.”

People with ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often share similar backstories, with childhoods involving emotional deprivation or loss. These, in turn, often lead to emotional repression and extreme dutifulness in adulthood, which can make someone appear unfailingly “nice.”

Lou Gehrig, the famous Yankees baseball player, was an illustrative example of the ALS personality. Gehrig had a rough upbringing – all of his younger siblings died within a year of being born, and his father suffered from alcoholism and epilepsy.

Well before he was diagnosed with ALS, Gehrig regularly exhibited extreme niceness. On one occasion, a fellow Yankee was so weak from a cold that Gehrig took him home to be cared for by Gehrig’s mother. 

The teammate slept in Gehrig’s bed, while Gehrig himself took the couch. But his niceness did not extend to the way he treated himself. In fact, Gehrig was referred to as the “iron horse” for refusing to miss games due to illness or injury – even when his fingers were broken.

In a similar fashion, many people with cancer tend to share some common traits.

A 1984 study compared physiological responses to stress among people with melanoma, people with heart disease, and a healthy control group. The participants were shown slides containing statements like “You’re ugly” or “You have only yourself to blame.”

The physiological responses were the same across all the groups. But the melanoma patients were the most likely to deny feeling upset or anxious after seeing the messages. Their responses indicated emotional repression – and a desire to maintain a strong façade.

Despite these curious similarities, it’s important to note that no personality trait can cause ALS, cancer, or any other disease. But these traits, combined with genetic predisposition, may make someone more vulnerable to illness.

Understand How Humans Interact With The World

The human brain is uniquely designed. Upon exiting the mother’s womb, a newborn baby possesses a brain that is small and immature. 

But that brain grows rapidly. In fact, about 90 percent of brain development occurs after birth. In the first few months alone, our brains form millions of new connections.

So it’s not difficult to believe that, as babies, our environment greatly shapes our understanding of the world. 

We inherit some amount of genetic potential, but in order for that potential to be realized, it must be nourished. Human brain development requires the nurturing emotional interactions that stimulate nerve cells and teach us how to operate in the world.

Parent-child interactions establish children’s understanding of the world. Very early on, a child learns whether she’s living in a world of neglect, hostility, and indifference – or one of love and acceptance.

To that end, physical touch during infancy is extremely important. Being touched by our parents stimulates growth and development. But that alone isn’t enough. 

The quality of attunement, which indicates a parent being “tuned in” to his child’s emotional needs, is also essential. Parents who aren’t attuned might try to play with a sleeping or resting child, ignoring that the child may need a break.

Lack of attunement and physical touch have reverberating effects throughout a child’s life. A famous psychological experiment called the “Strange Situation” illustrates this well.

In the experiment, researchers spent a year observing interactions between mother-infant pairs in the home. Then the pairs were brought into a laboratory. There, infants spent three minutes each with just their mother, with their mother and a stranger, with just a stranger, and finally alone.

The experiment’s results were revealing. Infants who received attuned attention at home showed signs of missing their mothers when separated – but were easily soothed when they were reunited. 

They had secure attachment styles. Other babies, however, showed various insecure styles. Avoidant infants, for instance, didn’t appear distressed when separated from their mothers – but showed signs of stress when reunited.

In adolescence, those who had a secure attachment style as infants showed greater marks in emotional maturity, peer relationships, and academic performance as compared to their insecurely attached peers. 

Clearly, our first years of life dictate how we’ll interact with the world as adults – even if we aren’t consciously aware of it.

How Can You Overcome Stress By Negative Thinking? 

When discussing the effects of emotions, stress, personality, and relationships on illness, you can easily start to feel like you’re being blamed for your health conditions – or like you’re blaming others.

However, this is far from the case. Instead, examining the root causes of your illness can help you take responsibility for yourself and your actions. 

The more you can learn about yourself, the less you’ll be a passive victim of your illness. And the more you take control, the greater your chances of finally overcoming that illness.

There are many patients who couldn’t understand why they’d developed cancer. One man expressed that he’d always been a positive thinker who’d never given in to pessimistic thoughts. So why should he have gotten cancer?

Well, it’s not quite that simple. While positive emotions do increase well-being, constant positive thinking can actually become a destructive coping mechanism. 

By ignoring the bad, you repress your negative emotions, increase your stress levels, and ultimately predispose yourself to disease.

Instead, it’s better to engage in some negative thinking. That doesn’t mean living as if the glass were half-empty. Instead, it involves accepting and embracing all of reality – even the bad parts. Then, you can determine a way to fix things.

The power of negative thinking is borne out by research. A study done in San Francisco found that emotional repression in melanoma patients was positively correlated with relapse and death. 

By contrast, another study found that melanoma patients who felt less accepting and resigned to their illness – and had a harder time coping with their diagnosis – were actually less likely to suffer relapses.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that psychological support can make a big difference in cancer recovery. A study conducted at UCLA looked at 34 people with stage 1 melanoma – half made up a control group, and half went to six group therapy sessions over a six-week period. 

Six years later, ten members of the control group had died, and three had recurrences. By contrast, just three of the therapy group had died, while four had recurrences.

When people become ill, many react with denial or minimization. But this isn’t what our bodies need. Instead, we must grow to understand the root causes of our stress – and, ultimately, ourselves.

Final Words

Health is a delicate balancing act, and chronic stress can easily disrupt that balance by damaging our immune and nervous systems. 

In the worst cases, chronic stress can contribute to the onset and exacerbation of illnesses like MS, cancer, and ALS. It’s only by reckoning with our unhealthy coping mechanisms, destructive personality traits, and repressed emotions that we can fight stress and reclaim our health.

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