You’ve just put in a long, busy week at work. Two projects were due, one of your most trusted employees was out sick, and your boss was in a foul mood all week because she was feeling pressure from the C-suite… Finally you achieve Friday! You get home, peel off your work clothes, relax for the evening and go to bed. Then Saturday morning you wake up with a fever, sore throat, swollen glands and a cough. What the heck?!
Why does this happen? Wouldn’t you think you’d get sick WHILE you were under so much stress? There actually is a good reason why you get sick AFTER a stressful time ends, not during the stressful time.
To explain this, we have to look at how the body reacts to stress. Stress increases the fight-or-flight hormones by activating what’s called the sympathetic nervous system. You know the feeling you get when you narrowly avoid a car accident? Nervous, shaky, heart racing? That’s due to adrenaline.
High adrenaline levels over more than a few minutes will make the adrenal glands increase the amount of cortisol and other stress hormones they are making. Cortisol raises blood sugar and helps mobilize metabolic resources for dealing with stress.
However, these hormones are not meant to be high for days on end. At some point the stress drops and the cortisol and other hormone levels drop again. The drop in hormones can trigger migraines (something my son and I know from personal experience) and also can weaken the immune system.
When you’re under stress levels of IgA decrease dramatically. IgA is the antibody involved in the immune system of the nose, throat and GI tract. Unfortunately germs are always there, whether you’re under stress or not. While your systems are revved up the immune system can keep the invaders off the walls, but after the stress releases and the hormone levels drop (and antibody levels are low) you are more prone to get sick.
So how can you reduce the likelihood that you will fall prey to a cold, flu or migraine after a period of stress? The key is in managing the stress well DURING the stressful period so that the “let-down effect” isn’t so dramatic.
Make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep. Sleep deprivation increases stress levels and suppresses the immune system. Exercise also reduces stress hormone levels and improves sleep. Make sure you’re choosing an exercise you enjoy too, forcing yourself to do something you hate is NOT going to reduce your stress!
Reach out to family and friends. Social isolation and feeling you’re “going it alone” increase perceptions of stress.
Practicing active relaxation techniques like meditation and yoga are very powerful ways to keep adrenaline and cortisol levels manageable.
Remember, you can’t keep stress away. Being a grownup (or a teenager or a kid, LOL!) means demands are going to be placed on us that we will have to deal with effectively. The key is in managing how we deal with the stress. Avoiding big swings in our body’s stress hormone levels is key to staying healthy.
QUESTION: Do you tend to get sick WHILE you’re under stress or AFTER the stress lets up?