The Relationship Between Stress and Illness
Stress is a normal part of everyones life. When we feel it in brief episodes, we can usually deal with it. Our bodies are designed to manage short bursts of stressful activity. However, our busy 21st century lives often have periods of greatly extended stress that take its toll in many ways; often in illness.
Unlike the creatures in the wild, who are stressed briefly if they are in danger of being eaten by a larger foe, but who quickly return to a normal baseline after the threat has passed, humans today typically have many long, extended stressors that are slow to ease up. This means that stress hormones are often mobilized for long periods of time without letup. This affects our bodies in different ways. There are many illnesses in which stress can specifically play a large role either as [one of] various causal factors of the illnesses themselves, or as a subsequent effect, when one has to learn to cope with being ill.
Illness is one of our most difficult challenges to face. We tend to believe we are in charge of our lives, and will generally do the things we set out to do. We arent planning for the unexpected news that our body has been stricken with disease. It is an extremely emotional time, as we have to take in news that we always thought only happened to other people. In the event of a serious illness such as heart disease, stroke or diabetes, people are forced to readjust the whole of their lives to accommodate to this new condition.
Chronic stressors that can contribute to illness (such as work stress, financial difficulties, relationship problems or parenting difficulties), as well as the stresses that might accompany living with a serious illness, (such as adequate health care, worry, fear, life changes), are unhealthy states and need to be modified.
Learning to manage stressful situations (particularly chronic ones) before illness strikes as well as learning to manage the stress of living with an illness (or living with someone else who is ill) is critical. Sometimes people can make changes in their lives when they realize where the stress is, so that they can readjust their style of living to reduce their stress. But this can be difficult to achieve, especially when it is interpersonal stress. It is challenging to change old patterns of living with other people, who themselves may not realize there could be better, more positive, ways to interact. Sometimes just considering the risk of trying different ways of handling things brings on its own anxiety.
Psychotherapy helps people learn to manage stress more effectively. It is important not to tell yourself that stress just happens, because we do know the physical and emotional effects that occur when it is ignored. When feeling overwhelmed by lifes challenges and struggles, a psychotherapist can listen to your concerns and help you find more positive and effective ways to manage them.