Physiological Responses to Stress
For the general population, it is widely known — via literature, social media, and personal experiences shared from others — that stress is not good for our health. It can have all kinds of implications for our bodies and minds that manifest in different ways. As a physical example: Excessive or prolonged stress can lead to frequent stomachaches or headaches. And an overabundance of mental stress can lead to anxiety, panic, or constant worry. These are some of the more common symptoms of excessive stress. However, the list of how stress can affect us seems ever-evolving as we learn more about its impact.
I recently met with a rheumatologist who became involved in the management of my idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) and possible corresponding autoimmune disease. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, other than knowing he would be ordering a lot of blood work to start understanding if there was more to my excessive fatigue, pale skin, shortness of breath, and chronic pain than just IPF. Having no agenda for my appointment, I was open to discussing anything the doctor wanted to talk about.
After waiting to see him for over an hour, I was pleasantly surprised at how thorough his examination was. He not only factored in my medical condition and physical abilities, he also talked to me about my emotions and mood, as well as contextual factors that have impacted me over the past few years. It has been a tough few years with lots of transitions, and while things are going very well for me now and are a lot more stable, I had no idea the impact of what chronic stress could do from a physiological perspective.
When he first discussed how chronic stress was causing some of my physical symptoms, I felt a little doubtful that his diagnosis was correct. After all, my stress and worries didn’t feel comparable to some of the people I have come to know throughout this journey with IPF. I know people who are facing their second transplant due to chronic rejection, or people who have lost a sibling or child from this disease. I know people who are financially struggling to feed their families or who can’t afford the medication they need to survive this disease. My stress felt miniscule compared to the people living with these realities. As a result, I wasn’t convinced stress could be causing my fatigue and chronic pain. However, what he explained next was really helpful.
First, he told me not to compare my stress to others. Each of us has a personal journey and some people have better techniques for managing stress than others. Second, he told me to think of my body like a cylinder that holds liquid, in the sense that each new stressor that I gained (career transition, diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, defending a master’s thesis, to name a few) filled up the cylinder a little more. Eventually, even with appropriate coping strategies, the cylinder becomes full and the body can’t manage anymore — the water spills over, making you ill.
He also explained after a physical examination that stress doesn’t always manifest itself in the classic ways. Chronic stress can impact your body on a physiological level, meaning it can turn on pain receptors on your nerve endings, causing widespread pain throughout your body when you frequently feel or think about stressors impacting your life. This is what he said has happened to me, as during his physical examination he didn’t find excessive pain in one particular spot. Instead, it was widespread in various areas of my body.
He also explained that chronic pain, fatigue, and shortness of breath are due to my IPF. To an extent, I will always be living with these symptoms as long as I have lung disease (pre- or post-transplant), but I was happy to hear there was something to help alleviate the nerve pain, even if temporarily. I don’t like taking extra medication, so I was also reluctant to try a medication that would help put the pain receptors on my nerve endings back to sleep. However, the doctor and I discussed how this would be helpful even if taken only for a few months. He said once these pain receptors are shut down, they are not likely to be reactivated, especially not right away.
Next time you think about how stress can impact you physically or emotionally, also consider the lesser known implications that it can have on the body as well, and do your best to avoid stress and stressful situations!
Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary fibrosis.