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Illness or Stress? How to Tell the Difference

Published: May 27, 2016

By Tampa General Hospital


Lately, you’ve felt sluggish and noticed a lingering headache and mild stomach ache. Are you getting sick — or are you simply stressed?

When you picture the body’s reaction to stress, you may think of sweaty palms and a rapid pulse. Hormones released during the body’s fight-or-flight response prompt these changes, which keep people alert and help them survive dangerous situations. But these temporary changes aren’t the only products of stress.

From a traffic-jammed morning commute to in-office scrambles to parent-teacher conferences, stress is a daily fact of life for many adults. If left unchecked, chronic worries can wear down your health.

The fight-or-flight hormones the body releases aren’t meant to stick around in the system. Consistently elevated levels of these hormones can lower your immunity to viruses, such as colds and the flu, and affect digestion and other bodily functions, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Chronic stress can affect your mood and lead to feelings of anger or irritability. Even more importantly, it can raise your risk of developing heart disease and depression and cause a variety of symptoms that may look like illness. According to Dr. Jeffrey Lester, internal medicine physician at Tampa General Medical Group, the most common stress-related physical symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain and bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Insomnia
  • Migraines
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Tension headaches

Stress-related physical symptoms are most common in people who feel stressed for a period of weeks or months, Dr. Lester says. Everyday challenges, such as heavy traffic, mounting job responsibilities, and family commitments, often lead to persistent worries. Experiencing a traumatic emotional event, like marital or financial woes, losing your job, or the death of a loved one, can also contribute to headaches, difficulty sleeping and other problems.

“Stress can have a huge impact on your health, so don’t rule it out as a cause for some of your symptoms,” Dr. Lester said. “If you’ve had a recent change to your routine, you’re caring for an older relative or you’re worried about your kids or grandkids, that stress can contribute to your health problems.”

Take a minute to think about how you usually cope with daily concerns. While there’s nothing wrong with occasionally drinking a glass of red wine or eating a sweet treat, using these mechanisms to deal with stress can contribute to obesity and other health concerns. In fact, many quick-fix strategies, such as smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, can actually worsen stress.

Finding constructive stress-management techniques that work for you is essential to achieving overall wellness. Try one of these strategies the next time you feel overwhelmed:

Visit someone you trust. Confiding in a close friend, family member or counselor offers a fresh perspective and can help you find new solutions to the problems contributing to your high stress levels.

Live the fit life. “Exercising and eating a low-sodium, low-fat and high-energy diet are tried-and-true stress relievers,” Dr. Lester said. “Avoiding excessive caffeine and sugar can also help minimize stress.”

Yoga, tai chi and Pilates are known for their calming power, but all forms of exercise are beneficial. Whether you run, swim or take a dance class doesn’t matter as long as you move your body for at least 30 minutes every day.

Don’t be afraid to seek out an expert opinion. Talking with a psychologist about a traumatic event that’s had a lasting impact on your life can empower you to triumph over stress, Dr. Lester said.

Meditate. Mindful meditation isn’t just for yogis. A 2014 review of studies on meditation found evidence to support the ancient practice’s use in relieving anxiety, depression and chronic pain. You don’t need to meditate for hours to reap rewards. Simply find a quiet spot to sit, close your eyes and clear your mind. For three to five minutes, banish thoughts about past mistakes or future uncertainties and focus solely on the present moment.

“Stress may be bad for your health,” Dr. Lester said, “but a healthy stress strategy can do wonders for fighting high blood pressure, obesity and other serious health issues, all while lightening the load of the daily grind.”

Looking for more ways to tame stress? Visit 4healthier.me/TGHStress to watch our video about deep breathing for stress relief.

Story from Spring issue of SHINE Magazine.