Is Stress Making You Sicker?

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Middle-aged woman with hands folded looking worried.

You’ve probably heard that stress is bad for your health and can even contribute to serious conditions like heart disease.

But stress doesn’t just lead to trouble down the road—it can also worsen health problems we already have.

“Our skin and brain are definitely connected.”

We talked to Cedars-Sinai experts to understand why stress can aggravate and intensify pre-existing conditions, from skin problems to diabetes and hypertension—and what you can do about it.

The mind-body connection

“Our skin and brain are definitely connected,” says dermatologist Dr. Ohara Aivaz.

“When the body releases stress hormones, such as cortisol, our skin senses these hormones and creates a surge of inflammatory proteins. This may exacerbate a range of skin diseases.”

Pre-existing skin conditions like hives, cold sores, acne, psoriasis, and dermatitis can be prolonged and intensified by stress, says Dr. Aivaz.

“Wound healing can also be slowed significantly if a patient is psychologically distressed,” says Dr. Aivaz.


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Stress and lifestyle

Healthy choices are more difficult to make when we’re overstressed, and this can also make existing ailments worse.

“Diabetes and hypertension are examples of chronic conditions that require consistent attention to diet, lifestyle, and medication adherence, which can all be sabotaged by stress,” says primary care physician Dr. Maria Scremin.

“Stress can prolong certain diseases and conditions for years.”

“Stress makes it harder to stick to a diet or exercise routine, and often distracts people from their daily medication regimens.”

According to Dr. Scremin, other conditions like insomnia, under- or overeating, irritability, and depression can all be triggered by stress, and these conditions then make illnesses and chronic diseases even worse.

“Stress can prolong certain diseases and conditions for years,” she says.

Make plans to relax and rejuvenate

Both Dr. Scremin and Dr. Aivaz offer their patients stress-management strategies to create a path to better health.

“I tell my patients to pick achievable goals, even if it’s just walking for 15 minutes a day,” says Dr. Scremin. “Socializing with friends and strengthening friendships can also greatly reduce stress.”

Some patients can’t avoid the stressful circumstances in their lives, making self-care even more important, she says.

“If someone can’t remove themselves from a stressful situation—such as a difficult marriage, for example—yoga, exercise, acupuncture, and massage therapy may be beneficial,” says Dr. Aivaz. “If necessary, evaluation by a psychiatrist, either for counseling or antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications, can be important.”


Read: Stressed? Try Mindfulness


Communication is key

Along with modifying lifestyle, simply talking about the stresses of our lives can help. A trusting and open relationship between the patient and physician is important to making treatment as successful as possible.

“I practice cura personalis—care of the whole person—every day with my patients,” says Dr. Aivaz.

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