Open Accessibility Menu

Can stress really impact your health?

Published in Mental Health, For the Health of It Author: Toni Mahowald, PsyD, MAPP

Most people have heard of the “fight-or flight response,” the physiological response that is activated when we are threatened. Our hearts pound, breathing rate increases, we perspire, and blood is diverted from the organs in our digestive systems and into our limbs. This reaction is natural and can be really helpful when we need to take action NOW!

Ideally, our bodies turn off the stress response after the danger has passed. Sometimes, however, our bodies believe that we are still under threat, even if the danger has passed; in other situations, the threat doesn’t go away, such as when the stressor is an illness. When our stress response systems don’t turn off, physiological changes occur that can make us prone to more frequent and severe viral infections, and can decrease the effectiveness of vaccines. We also are at increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and anxiety.

More and more research is showing that the relationship between physical and mental health is a two-way street. While stressful experiences can make us more prone to diseases such as ischemic heart disease, alcoholism and alcohol abuse, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), depression, and liver disease, physical illnesses — particularly chronic illnesses — also can make us more vulnerable to depression and anxiety. As a result, it is essential to identify physical, emotional and psychological symptoms, and to learn effective ways of managing these symptoms.