- Stress can contribute to headaches, stomach pains, and even weaken your immune system.
- Some research has found that chronic stress is associated with a higher likelihood of getting sick from the common cold virus.
- Chronic stress, and other mental health conditions like anxiety or depression, may also increase your risk for cardiovascular disease and long-term physical illnesses.
- This article was medically reviewed by Zlatin Ivanov, MD, who is certified in psychiatry and addiction psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology at Psychiatrist NYC.
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Psychological stress impacts many functions of the body, and it's possible for your mental health to have an effect on your physical symptoms.
According to David Cutler, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center, stress is known to contribute to headaches, stomach pains, high blood pressure, and even a weakened immune system.
Here's what you need to know about the relationship between mental health and physical health, and how to manage stress in order to stay healthy.
Stress can make you more likely to get sick
When we're stressed, the immune system doesn't function as well. That's because stress causes the body to release hormones, such as adrenaline, dopamine, norepinephrine, and cortisol, which can decrease the body's ability to make lymphocytes — the white blood cells that help fight off harmful viruses or bacteria.
In fact, research has found that chronic stress can make you more susceptible to developing an illness, like the common cold. In a 2012 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers conducted stress interviews on 276 healthy adults and then exposed them to a virus that causes the common cold.
After monitoring them in quarantine for five days, researchers found that chronic stress was associated with an increased likelihood of developing a cold when exposed to the virus.
How your body and immune system respond to stress depends on many factors, including whether the stress is acute or chronic. Acute stress is a normal part of everyday life. It's how your body responds to threats in the environment, and it's necessary for survival, Cutler says.
You might experience acute stress when stuck in a traffic jam or running late for an important meeting. For the most part, this acute stress is manageable and doesn't cause lasting physical effects. However, if you experience it frequently or are constantly under stress, it can become chronic and impair bodily functions like your immune system.
"If it happens very briefly, then goes away, there probably is no effect on your immune system," Cutler says. "But if there's cortisol being released chronically for days and weeks at a time, that very likely could impair your immune system."
How mental health affects physical health
When we experience a sudden onset of stress, maybe from slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident, our muscles tense up and then release once the tension passes.
But when we are under stress for prolonged periods of time, those muscles remain tense, which can trigger headaches and muscle pain, according to the American Psychological Association.
Chronic stress and poor mental health can contribute to a range of long-term physical health problems, including:
- Cardiovascular disease. The release of adrenaline when you're stressed causes your heart rate to speed up and raises your blood pressure. Over time, this can put extra pressure on your heart and harm your arteries, increasing your risk of heart disease and heart attacks.
- Gastrointestinal problems. Stress can cause a decrease of blood flow to the stomach, which can result in cramping, bloating, inflammation, and lack of appetite.
- Poor sleep quality. Stress can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, and not getting adequate sleep can exacerbate health problems and weaken your immune system.
How to manage stress and stay healthy
According to Cutler, prolonged stress is associated with many health complications, like a weakened immune system and an increased risk of heart disease, so the better you're able to manage your stress, the better your overall health will be.
"In general, people deal much better with these stressful events by staying focused on what is happening right now, rather than dwelling on what might have happened in the past to make things come out differently, or what the consequences are going to be in the future," Cutler says.
Some proven ways to reduce stress include:
- Regular exercise. Studies have shown that physical activity can boost mood, relieve tension, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Just 30 minutes of low to moderate intensity exercise each day, like walking, can stabilise your mood and improve your sleep — not to mention the added benefits for physical health, especially in preventing or managing cardiovascular disease.
- Meditate. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, meditation can help decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression, and can also help alleviate some of the physical effects of stress like headaches and difficulty sleeping. There are many different types of meditation, but taking a few minutes each day to focus on your breath can be a good place to start. "Whatever puts you in that mindful state of just accepting what's going on, letting things go that you can't control, releasing your expectations, and just being in the present," Cutler says.
- Seek professional help. Working with a psychologist or therapist can help you develop relaxation or breathing strategies if you aren't able to manage your stress on your own. Talk therapy with a licensed counselor can reduce symptoms of anxiety and contribute to long-term health improvements, according to a review of research studies by the American Psychological Association. "A psychologist or therapist who is professionally trained can help guide you through the process," Cutler says.