How Chronic Stress Affects Your Body’s Ability To Heal
Work. Money. Relationships. Drip, drip, drip. That’s what the constant onslaught of daily stressors in your life might feel like. While short-lived stress is manageable, chronic stress over a long period of time is a serious condition that creates physical problems.
Initial Reaction = Chemical Response
Stress produces the well-known “fight or flight” chemicals, epinephrine and norepinephrine, that alert your body to an emergency. These chemicals raise blood pressure and heart rate. Cortisol is another released chemical that prepares you to run away; it causes fats and sugars to be released into your blood stream to give you instant energy, but did you know that cortisol also reduces your immune system’s efficiency?
Prehistorically, this chemical response would have helped you run from something that was trying to eat you, but these chemicals are certainly not useful in a crowded subway or stressful office situation. Basically, your body produces the chemicals, but since you can’t escape the subway or the office, you never use them up because you’re not running from anything. The effect is that your body is literally overreacting to your environment and to the daily non-life-threatening situations like traffic and work deadlines.
Over time, these chemicals produce damaging effects on your body, like indigestion, nausea, heart palpitations, depression, anxiety, and other aches and pains. If you are injured or recovering from a surgery, it’s even worse–chronic stress is working constantly against you to make your immune system work less efficiently, and that wreaks havoc on your body’s ability to heal.
Many factors determine how rapidly you will heal. Your physical condition, your current immune state, and pre-existing conditions all come into play, but stress is a major factor in the equation.
Many scientific studies like this one have shown the impact chronic stress can have on wound healing. Immunity at the cellular level is tremendously impacted; the entire chemical cascade needed for healing is interrupted. When the body has an overabundance of cortisol, the high levels interfere with the production of anti-inflammatory substances called cytokines. The result is that your injured area remains inflamed and is very slow to heal.
In other studies, researchers have created wounds in both animal and human subjects, then have closely monitored the wounds to determine the impact stress might have. For example, a study on human stress and wound healing involved a study of caregivers of dementia patients, one of the most stressful healthcare jobs on the planet. Very small skin punch biopsies were created in the caregivers and in control subjects who were not caregivers. The caregiver subjects took 24 percent longer to heal.
Other studies have followed injured subjects who measure their stress levels using a self-reporting standard questionnaire like the Perceived Stress Scale. Higher reported stress led to slower wound healing.
Pain Ups The Ante
Pain itself is a stressor and can affect how long it takes a wound to heal. Subjects who reported greater pain levels after surgery, and pain that persisted several weeks after surgery, took longer to heal.
When wound healing is interrupted or prolonged, a chronic wound or injury develops, and the downward spiral soon begins: higher infection risk, more discomfort, and hospital stays that get longer and longer. The United States is a stressed out country; as much as $9 billion a year is spent by the healthcare industry on treating chronic wounds.
What You Can Do About It
Now that you know how stress is interfering with your ability to heal, you can find ways to reduce it on a daily basis and therefore prevent it from becoming a chronic stress situation. For example, when life gets hectic, try one or more of these to help:
- Put on some earphones and listen to relaxing music
- Use the “phone a friend” option; sometimes talking with someone about your problems can really offload your stress
- Laughter is always a sure bet because it causes your body to release endorphins to improve mood. Watch a funny movie or read a funny book
- Do exercise—any exercise. You don’t have to go power lift at the gym. Just doing a few minutes of exercise, like a brisk walk or some jumping jacks gets your blood moving and your body releasing endorphins
“Take a deep breath” is not just a saying—it really works. Try this–sit up straight in a chair, feet flat on the floor and hands on top of your knees; breathe in and out slowly and deeply for about five minutes. You’ll be amazed at how great you feel. Remember that shallow breathing causes stress but deep breathing alleviates it by oxygenating your blood.
All of these techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on the brain and body; they lower both blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol. Find one that works for you and do it when you feel stressed. You’ll not only feel great, but you’ll heal in no time!
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