Your Stress Might Be Making You Sick

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Since I was a little girl, I have struggled with eczema, a chronic skin disease that results in itchy, dry, inflamed patches all over the body. This particular skin disease is fairly common, it affects millions of Americans, but a lot of people grow out of it. For those who bring it into adulthood like myself, eczema can be especially frustrating when”flare-ups” typically caused by periods of stress.

A few months ago, I was going through an extremely busy period at college, and I was suffering from sleep bulimia. I was sleeping for about 4-5 hours per night, working constantly, and experiencing perpetual periods of stress and anxiety. This resulted in my skin erupting into dark brown and red patches that I haven’t been able to get rid of for what feels like ages.

Now that the school year has ended, I finally feel like I might have time to see a doctor, but I was also hoping that simply coming home, getting more rest, and relaxing more often would lead to my skin clearing up. I was wrong.

After getting home, I felt less stressed on the surface, but in reality, I was still dealing with my stress problem. I found myself getting frustrated more often and agitated more easily. Small mistakes or issues during my day led to emotional explosions. After some research, I learned that most people tend to deal with stress in one of two ways, “fight” or “flight”. “Flyers” react to stress by becoming depressed, withdrawn, and spaced-out. “Fighters” react to stress by becoming angry or keyed-up. I also learned that whether you’re a flyer or a fighter, prolonged stress periods can lower the immune system.

Skin diseases aren’t the only thing that can be worsened by stress. During periods of frustration, migraine sufferers can expect more episodes. Insomniacs can have increased trouble sleeping. People with heart problems are more prone to an incident. Even people who have no chronic illnesses can expect stress to make them more susceptible to muscle pain, nausea, colds, and much more.

Most Americans are stressed for some reason or another, whether it’s a recent divorce, a loss of a family member, or just having too many things on the daily to-do list. According to the APA, 65% of Americans cite work as the most stressful part of life, due to low salaries, excessive responsibilities, lack of social support, lack of control over job-related decisions, and unclear performance expectations. Chances are, at some point, you’ve felt like you were inches from a breakdown at the office or you left your job at the end of the day wanting to punch someone in the face. Even if you don’t realize you’re stressed out, you may be experiencing fight or flight responses anyway, because sometimes, stress is subconscious. In the forefront of your mind, everything seems handled and under control, but underneath, your brain is racing and chattering away without you.

As I learn to deal with my own subconscious stress, which rears its ugly head both physically through my skin and emotionally when I find myself arguing with someone for no reason, I’ve been working towards recognizing a fight or flight response when it happens. When I become extremely frustrated, I have to ask myself, “Is this worth being so upset that I’m going to cause my skin to look worse?” or “Am I really that mad or do I just feel overwhelmed because I have a lot to do?” Then, if I find that I’m more upset than I really should be, I go grab a healthy snack and some water, find a quiet place to sit, and just breathe and relax for about 15 minutes. I do a quick, meditative breathing exercise so that I can cool down. I get myself away from others so I don’t say something I’ll regret later. I eat a healthy snack because I know that if I’m stressed out, I probably haven’t been eating well lately either, and my immune system will benefit from fruits, vegetables, and water. This little restorative session leaves me feeling a lot better.

I hope to enter the summer with much clearer skin because, honestly, I’m a tad vain and I hate it when people ask me if I’m covered in bruises or a cashier stares at my skin when I reach to hand them my money. But, I also hope to enter the summer with a much clearer mind. Considering that my physical sickness is partially just in my head, it’s my brain that I want to start healing first. Mind over matter is my new motto.

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