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Is stress making you sick?

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

Marianne appeared to have crafted a perfect life for herself, juggling the demands of a successful career with an active family. But it wasn’t seamless. Bouncing back and forth between work and family commitments, she began experiencing spells of rapid heartbeat. Recently, she began noticing another disturbing trend: her hair was falling out in clumps.

Ben’s only escape from his new, high-pressure job was sleep. Even that bit of peace was interrupted when he woke with a pounding heart and tightness in his chest. He hoped it wasn’t a heart problem.

Ben visited his doctor, who ruled out immediate cardiac issues. She talked to him about his day-to-day life and the challenges he faces. The diagnosis? Acute anxiety. The demands of his new job were taking a toll.

In Marianne’s case, her rapid heartbeat – and likely her hair loss – was the result of stress.

In times past, Ben and Marianne may have been expected to just push through, but today medical professionals recognize how stress and anxiety can show up as very real physical symptoms. These may include:

  • Rapid heartbeat or chest tightness

  • Lack of energy

  • Sleep problems

  • Upset stomach

  • Heartburn or reflux

  • Diarrhea or constipation

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Headaches

  • Dry mouth

  • Frequent colds or infections

  • Tense muscles

  • Jaw clenching

  • Loss of sexual desire or ability

  • Hair loss

  • Nervousness

  • Ringing in ears

  • Acne

Severe stress and anxiety can contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure and a multitude of other problems. They can also lead to thoughts of hopelessness, self-doubt and even suicide.

What can you do?

Often, simple lifestyle changes are a good starting point. Yoga and tai chi, for instance, focus on controlled breathing and mindful movement, forging a connection between the spirit and the body. These practices can act as a reset button when anxiety seeks to take control.

Traditional physical exercise of low to moderate intensity is another good tool. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, exercise produces endorphins, chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers. These improve your ability to sleep and help you feel energized and less stressed. As little as five minutes of aerobic activity can decrease tension, improve mood and elevate self esteem.

Meditation and spiritual or religious activities help some people, offering optimism, context and community.

If you’re feeling physical symptoms of stress and/or anxiety that don’t go away after 1-2 weeks (depending on their impact on your life), talk to your health care provider. Talk therapy, medication or a combination of both may be needed. A counselor or licensed therapist can help you identify sources of stress and teach you healthy ways to cope with them. Sometimes a therapist can simply offer a much-needed objective ear. Additionally, anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications can complement lifestyle changes and therapy. Their use must be monitored by a health care provider.

Bottom line: Stress and anxiety can take a toll on your quality of life and, if left untreated, lead to serious health problems. Help is available; there’s no shame in using it. In fact, it would be a shame if you didn’t.

If you are suffering from stress and/or anxiety, you have several options:

  • Talk to your primary care provider.

  • Reach out to the State’s Employee Assistance Program, Optum, at 1-800-HERE4TN.

  • Make an appointment at the ParTNers Health & Wellness Center. We can help you get the treatment you need and, if appropriate, make a referral to counseling services. In early 2020, an onsite counselor will join us. Details are coming soon.


Sources: Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Mayo Clinic, National Institute of Mental Health


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