Health Psychologist Shares Which Medical Issues Can Be Caused By Stress

Stress is our body's protective response to something dangerous. You'll feel your heart race, blood pressure rise, and breath rate increase. You might even feel it in your muscles and your gut. In our exclusive interview with health psychologist and sleep/stress/anxiety specialist Julia Kogan, Psy.D., she said stress can create or aggravate other medical issues if it's not managed carefully. Oftentimes, Kogan said, we don't know we're under stress and don't see its effects on our physical, emotional, cognitive, or behavioral health.

"People often associate medical issues with medical conditions only, so that may be another reason they are unaware of the negative impacts of stress in their life," Kogan said.

Kogan said stress can show up as stomach cramps or diarrhea, but worsen IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) symptoms. Because stress affects our cardiovascular system, people with cardiac issues such as hypertension could increase their risk of a heart attack or stroke. Stress can make migraines and muscle tension worse. We might also feel more tired when we're stressed. "Activation of the stress response gathers all of the body's resources quickly to protect us, which can exhaust us both physically and mentally," Kogan said. It also can disrupt our sleep.

Less obvious signs of stress

Kogan says that stress can cause subtle changes in our behavior that we might not recognize at first. "This might include changes such as sleeping more or less than usual, eating more or less than usual, procrastinating or avoiding tasks, being more irritable and snapping at others, and other changes that occur only when we are under higher levels of stress," she said.

Stress also can interfere with our cognitive processes, such as our ability to concentrate and remember things. Kogan said that this brain fog can impair our decision-making abilities. Stress also affects our thoughts. "When we start to get stressed or anxious, our thoughts start to change in a very negative way. Not only are the thoughts more negative, but they tend to be worst-case scenarios, untrue, and unlikely thoughts. They are often about the future, what others are thinking of us, or negative evaluations of ourselves," Kogan said. Another sign of stress can be any changes in our emotions, such as irritability, frustration, and overwhelm.

How we can manage our stress levels

Kogan says making ourselves more aware of stress' onset can help us address the physical, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional signs of stress before it veers out of control. "The earlier we can catch the stress escalating, the faster we will be able to address it," she said.

Because each of us has different life events that might bring on stress, Kogan says it's helpful to identify the biggest triggers of stress. If you know that something in your life always triggers stress in your life, you can develop a management plan when these stressors occur. Kogan says it's important to train the nervous system to respond more calmly to these triggers.

"Deep relaxation strategies such as deep breathing are the best way to do this," Kogan said. "Rather than only responding to stress, we want to preventively manage stress by retraining the nervous system to be calmer and less reactive with daily practice and prevention."

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