Can psychological stress affect physical health?


It is evident that these are very stressful times for all. Society as we know it is in crisis. In situations like these ones, how does psychological stress influence your physical health?

It has been proven that “psychological stress confers risk for chronic diseases including heart disease” (Gianaros & Wager, 2015). However in this article, I aim to describe the minor changes that occur in your body in times of acute stress; I’m talking the little things that can make or break your day without you even noticing. I’ll be sure to give you suggestions for small changes you can implement to avoid cabin fever and maintain a healthy mind & healthy body.

During an acute stress response, the autonomic nervous system is activated and the body experiences increased levels of cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones that produce an increased heart rate, quickened breathing rate, and higher blood pressure (Berne, 2004). In other words, your body is essentially in fight-or-flight mode. This is very normal on a day to day basis (think when your alarm rings, or you accidentally play a video out loud in class) and won’t negatively impact you! But extend this over a period of two weeks, and your body will respond in compensatory ways...

The first point that needs to be made is that stress may contribute to changes in dietary behaviors that lead to weight change. These factors may cause some people to gain more weight under stressful circumstances, while others may gain less weight or even lose weight when stressed (Block et.al, 2009). It is 100% normal for your appetite and tastes to change during stressful times, so be kind to yourself. In these tougher times, make an effort to eat with friends and family, try some intuitive eating principles while you have the time (https://www.intuitiveeating.org/10-principles-of-intuitive-eating/), and cook nourishing meals! Try to tune into your hunger and fullness cues, but also make a conscious effort to be forgiving as your dietary habits change a bit.

Second, even though you may be trapped at home it is crucial that you move your body for at least 30 minutes per day, in bouts of 10 minutes or more. Exercise can “bring remarkable changes to your body, your metabolism, your heart, and your spirits. It has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress” (Harvard Health Publishing, n.d.). Try jumping rope, dancing, or crafting mini-circuits with pushups, squats, etc. There are many Youtube channels for fun at-home workouts; now’s your time to experiment! Shift your mindset to exercising for health, rather than for appearance. C’mon - do it for us, okay?

Another crucial point to be made, is that stress negatively impacts your sleep. You probably know what I’m talking about: think back to a time when you had a big presentation coming up or had a looming deadline and you restlessly stared at the clock until 3am. Indeed, a stress response from academic worries (or anxiety over what will happen in the next few weeks) “contributes to a state of hyperarousal in which the brain and body operate as if ‘on alert’, preventing you from getting good quality sleep” (Stress & Insomnia: Help & Reasons—National Sleep Foundation, n.d.). To help you catch more zzz’s, we recommend that you set a consistent sleep schedule over the next two weeks (and stick to it), and that you avoid scrolling through Instagram and Facebook before bed. Seeing constant posts and updates can be extremely over-stimulating and and cause unnecessary stress right before bed.

Though vacations are getting postponed, people are getting sick, and you aren’t sure about your job/school/families, DHNUS is encouraging you all to take these two weeks to take care of yourselves. This is an opportunity to appreciate what you have, try new activities, call friends you haven’t spoken to in a while, read a book (we know you always say you love to read but “never have the time”... now’s your time!), and practice self-care.

Your physical and mental health is of utmost priority in these stressful times. Stress can impact them both, so do not hesitate to ask for help when you need it.

With love,

DHNUS

References:

Berne, R. (2004). Physiology (5th ed.). St. Louis: Mosby.


Jason P. Block, Yulei He, Alan M. Zaslavsky, Lin Ding, John Z. Ayanian, Psychosocial Stress and Change in Weight Among US Adults, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 170, Issue 2, 15 July 2009, Pages 181–192, https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwp104


Gianaros, P. J., & Wager, T. D. (2015). Brain-Body Pathways Linking Psychological Stress and Physical Health. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(4), 313–321. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721415581476


Harvard Health Publishing (n.d.). Exercising to relax. Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved March 15, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax

Stress & Insomnia: Help & Reasons—National Sleep Foundation (n.d.). Retrieved March 15, 2020, from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/stress-and-insomnia

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