How stress could make you sick
Stress affects people differently: while some are motivated to perform at their best, others feel immense pressure. However, when stress becomes chronic, the positive effects diminish, and the risk of illnesses increases. As part of the European Mental Health Week, the Health Knowledge Foundation provides information about the effects of stress on the body and mind.
Stress is a natural response of the body that alerts us in dangerous situations and enables us to react quickly. The body mobilizes energy to cope with it. However, stress doesn't only occur in threatening situations in daily life. Information overload, time pressure, distressing life events like breakups, or physical triggers such as illnesses can be typical stressors. Nevertheless, not everyone experiences stress in the same way. While some may feel pressure even when a deadline is set, others only work particularly productively under time constraints.
When stress leads to illness
There are two types of stress: acute and chronic stress. Acute stress occurs briefly and is time-limited, such as rushing to catch a bus. However, if the stress persists, the body remains in a state of constant alertness and finds it difficult to calm down. This long-lasting stress is referred to as chronic stress. A brief stress response typically has no negative impact on health. However, chronic stress increases the risk of various illnesses.
How Stress Affects Our Health
While it's challenging to establish a direct link between stress and specific diseases, experts believe that stress has an indirect impact on health: Persistent stress prevents the body from having adequate time for recovery, which can accelerate disease-promoting processes.
The energy provided by stress hormones in the form of sugar and fat is not used up, leading to excess energy that can clog blood vessels and contribute to their narrowing. Stress can also suppress the immune system, making the body less effective in fighting off pathogens. Often, people develop unhealthy behaviors like alcohol consumption, smoking, or consuming unhealthy foods due to stress. These conditions are among those linked to stress:
- Gastrointestinal problems such as nausea, vomiting, or irritable bowel syndrome
- Cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure, heart attack, and coronary artery disease
- Mental disorders like addiction, depression, and anxiety disorders
- Pain such as backaches, headaches, and tension
- Metabolic disorders like elevated cholesterol or type 2 diabetes
- Sensory organ issues such as increased eye pressure, sudden hearing loss, or tinnitus.
Is there such a thing as positive stress?
Whether stress is perceived as positive or negative depends on the intensity of the stress and the availability of coping strategies. Challenges that we can handle well are usually perceived as positive stress. Challenges that we struggle with are more likely to be seen as burdensome, potentially leading to negative stress.
What happens in the body during stress?
In acute danger situations, the brain sends signals through the nervous system to the adrenal glands, which then release more adrenaline. These speeds up the heartbeat, raises blood pressure, increases blood sugar levels, releases energy from fat tissue, and enhances alertness, among other effects. These effects provide energy. Shortly after, the adrenal gland releases the hormone cortisol, which also releases energy and supports decision-making, among other functions. Once the stressful situation is over, the body reduces the release of stress hormones, and bodily processes return to normal.
Sleepless due to stress?
Getting sufficient and restful sleep is particularly challenging for individuals experiencing stress. According to the infographic with data from Statista Consumer Insights, approximately 43 percent of respondents in Germany reported having experienced sleep disorders within the past twelve months before the survey. This includes issues like difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or insomnia. Swedes ranked among the poorest sleepers in the survey, with 49 percent reporting sleep issues, while in India, mostly good sleepers prevail – only 26 percent of respondents suffered from sleep disorders.
Research suggests approximately 7.5 hours of sleep per night are recommended to feel adequately rested. As another Statista graph illustrates, slightly over half of Germans achieve this, but the percentage of people who sleep less than six hours per night is similarly high at around 44 percent – very few sleep more than 8 hours.
Doctors caution against taking sleep issues lightly. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to serious health problems over time. These include decreased performance and concentration, an increased risk of heart attack and diabetes, as well as stress, headaches, or impaired mental health.
To enhance their quality of sleep, around twelve percent of the individuals surveyed in Germany by Statista utilize sleep trackers. These are apps that measure sleep quality and duration based on movements and sounds, and then wake users at their optimal times.
For more informations, you can go to that website: stiftung-gesundheitswissen.de/wissen/stress/hintergrund (website in German).