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When stress affects your health

Whether it’s the morning traffic crunch on the Dan Ryan or that laundry list of appointments, everyone has stress.

Stress isn’t always bad — it can motivate you to meet deadlines or respond to challenges. But all too often stress causes physical or emotional fallout — from upset stomachs to sleepless nights.

When faced with a stressful scenario — a looming deadline or a first date — our bodies release hormones, including cortisol and epinephrine, that help us react to the situation. This “fight-or-flight response” has a purpose: If you’re actually in danger, it provides extra energy and alertness to help you defend yourself or flee. But often there is no imminent danger, and our stress comes from daily hurdles or ongoing relationship or financial worries.

How harmful stress is to you depends on the level of stress, how you cope with it and your body’s physical response to it, says Ali Keshavarzian, MD, director of the Section of Gastroenterology and Nutrition at Rush University Medical Center.

Although stress affects everyone differently, some problems can indicate that it is causing your health to suffer.

Stressful days, fitful nights
“Many factors can cause and pro-long sleep problems, and stress is among the most common,” says psychologist James K. Wyatt, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Service and Research Center at Rush.

For example, stress can trigger or worsen insomnia. It can be hard to take your mind off your worries, and stress also prompts physical changes, such as increased heart rate, which may make sleep difficult.

In addition, people who are under a great deal of stress often experience shallow sleep, or brief awakenings they can’t recall.

Furthermore, Wyatt says, sleeping less can increase stress and weaken our immune system’s response.

Though there’s no “stress meter” to measure whether you’re too stressed, how you feel during the day can help indicate how well you’re sleeping at night, Wyatt says. For instance, if you’re having difficulty concentrating, or feeling fatigued or overly irritable, stress may be affecting your sleep.

If it is, a sleep-promoting medicine may help you through an extremely difficult time.

“If stress is prolonged, medication is no longer the appropriate way to improve your sleep,” Wyatt says. “That’s when we look at lifestyle changes.”

That can mean taking a hard look at the stress in your life and taking steps to address it. As Wyatt notes, the greater the stress and the longer it lasts, the greater the toll throughout the body.

Butterflies in your stomach
Stress can send your stomach into fits of queasiness or indigestion. And if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — a chronic condition that includes abdominal pain, bloating, and bouts of diarrhea or constipation —  stress can make your symptoms worse, says Ece Mutlu, MD, a gastroenterologist at Rush.

Stress can affect intestinal functionin several ways. It can speed up or slow down the normal movement of intestinal contents, resulting in diarrhea or constipation. Stress can also delay emptying of the stomach contents, causing nausea or fullness, or it may heighten your perception of activity in the digestive tract that normally isn’t noticed, so you feel discomfort, pain or bloating.

Also, research at Rush has demonstrated that stress may trigger inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) — which causes swelling in the intestines and symptoms such as pain and diarrhea — in people who are prone to the condition, possibly due to genetics. Researchers at Rush continue to examine the link between stress and IBD, studying whether changes in behavior can help decrease flare-ups of the disease.

The effects of stress can be felt in the pelvic region as well. Stress-related tightening of the pelvic muscles can contribute to pelvic pain, painful intercourse and urination difficulties. A pelvic-floor physical therapist can help.

If you’re having persistent physical symptoms from stress, that level of stress is not good for you. And when you’re already dealing with a chronic illness such as IBD, your coping mechanisms for dealing with stress deteriorate, Mutlu says. “The help of a psychologist is very valuable to help you learn skills to deal with stress,” she says.

Back aches and pains
Stress can make existing back pain worse or help trigger pain if you’re predisposed to back problems, says Shaun O’Leary, MD, a Rush neurosurgeon who specializes in spine care.

Stress causes muscle tension, which can lead to aches and pains. Furthermore, research suggests that stress alone may provoke chronic back pain, possibly due to stress-related bio-chemical changes that cause the brain to interpret pain differently.

“If you have neck or back pain that lasts for several weeks, it’s a good idea to see your primary care doctor,” O’Leary says. Seek help sooner if you also have loss of bladder or bowel control or trouble walking.

Take control
A variety of approaches can help you cope with stress, including exercise and relaxation techniques. Stress can affect so many different aspects of your health that it only makes sense to be aware of its role in your life and to take steps to reduce it or improve your ability to cope with it.

To speak with someone about stress or stress-related health problems, call your family physician or call Rush at (888) 352-Rush (7874).

Relief from stress-related symptoms

When you’re ready to tackle stress head-on, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago has a wealth of resources to help you, with primary care physicians and specialists who can guide you through the process.

Troubled sleep
Our interactive Web tool will walk you through common — and uncommon — sleep disorders and give you advice to help you get a better night’s rest. Go to or contact the Sleep Disorders Center at (312) 942-5440.

Gastrointestinal and pelvic problems
The Program for Abdominal and Pelvic Health at Rush offers a team approach to sensitive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome, pain during intercourse and incontinence. Call (312) 942-7274 for more information.

Back and neck pain
The Spine and Back Center at Rush brings together orthopedic and neurologic surgeons as well as physical medicine and rehabilitation specialists to treat all types of back and neck pain using the latest, most innovative nonsurgical and surgical approaches. For more information, call (888) 352-RUSH (7874) .

Each year approximately 18 million American adults have some form of depression. Most people who have mental disorders can find relief if they receive appropriate treatment. If you suspect that you or someone you know is depressed, contact Rush Behavioral Health at (312) 563-4600.


Relief from stress-related symptoms

To make an appointment with a primary care physician at Rush to start your conversation about stress management, call (888) 352-RUSH (7874).

More Information at Your Fingertips:  

  • Looking for a doctor? Call toll free: 888 352-RUSH (7874)

Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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