Short-term stress has effects on almost every part of the body. Here are some common examples:
• The release of chemicals during the fight-or-flight response causes blood vessels in your brain to swell. The result: chronic tension headaches and migraines.
• Chronic stress suppresses the immune system, which makes it easier for you to get sick. Do you tend to cough and sneeze a lot when you’ve had a stressful week at work or school?
This may be why
• The chemicals released in your body during fight-or-flight trigger the sebaceous glands on your skin to produce more oil, leading to clogged pores and pimples.
Stress affects everyone differently. Some people have an intense response, while others may be only slightly affected. Research shows that people who experience higher levels of stress tend to experience more of these symptoms. Of course, this doesn’t mean that stress is necessarily causing all of your symptoms; but it’s a pretty good bet that if you’re under a lot of stress, this has something to do with it. And if you reduce your stress, you might find that you have fewer medical complaints.
Effects on Your Immune System
Have you had a cold lately? How did you catch it? Were you around other people who had colds? Did someone sneeze on you? To catch a cold you first have to be exposed to the cold virus. But once you’re exposed, your level of stress plays a huge role in how severe your cold becomes, how long it lasts, and – believe it or not – whether you even get sick in the first place. In a fascinating set of studies, researchers exposed participants to cold viruses and then followed them closely for several weeks. They found that not only does the chance of getting sick increase when you have more stress, but the degree of stress is related to the length and severity (as measured by mucous levels) of your cold. Studies also show that certain stressful times of the year have high rates of illness.
For example, on college campuses, the incidence of upper respiratory infections tends to increase around final exam time.What exactly does stress have to do with colds and infections? What role does it play in making you sick? Simply put, stress weakens your body’s immune system – the complex network of special cells, tissues, and organs that protects you from foreign materials called antigens. Antigens are like uninvited guests that enter your body in one way or another. Common antigens are things like bacteria, viruses, dust particles, and parasites. Because antigens are all around us, our immune system is constantly seeking them out.
When it finds them, it produces antibodies, which literally surround the antigen and neutralize it. The immune system also “remembers” each different antigen, so if it is found again in your body, it is detected and neutralized quickly to keep you from getting sick. But when you’re stressed, levels of the hormone cortisol increase in your body. While cortisol is helpful to the immune system in small quantities, constant stress floods the body with too much cortisol, which causes the immune system to stop functioning properly. As a result, your body becomes more susceptible to invading antigens that it cannot fight off or neutralize as easily.
This translates to longer and more severe infections, colds, and other ailments. It might even take your body longer to recover from cuts, sores, and other minor injuries.