When you’re depressed or stressed, your body might start feeling the repercussions. Here’s why — and what you can do to help.

You got fired. You totaled your car. Your cat died. Anyone who has gone through one of these — or any similarly majorly stressful situation — knows that emotional upheaval can affect your body. In the short term, your breathing and heart rate skyrocket, you may lose your appetite and your head may start pounding.

How Emotions Turn Physical

When you go through a traumatic event, your nervous system is triggered into survival mode, AKA the fight or flight response. When your body is in survival mode, it releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. They are what sets your heart racing, increases your blood flow and signals your lungs to take in more oxygen. That switch is quick to turn on — it has to be, in order for you to survive — but it can be hard to turn off. When cortisol is continuously elevated, your blood pressure and blood sugar levels can shoot up and your immune system is less capable of fighting infection. That’s when the problems really start.

Here’s how emotions impact your body:

  • Increased inflammation. If your stress levels remain high, your immune system gets used to all that cortisol. Cortisol is one of the regulators of inflammation, so as your body becomes desensitized to it, inflammation increases. Inflammation in the body has been tied to a host of serious health problems including raising your risk for heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer.
  • Digestive issues. When your fight or flight response is triggered, blood flow that usually goes to your stomach is sent to your lungs and muscles instead. This slows the secretion of stomach acids, which your body needs for digestion. In addition, your brain and stomach are connected through your enteric nervous system so when you feel stressed it’s normal to have a stomachache, constipation or diarrhea.
  • Muscle aches. Your muscles are more likely to be tense and constricted when you’re anxious and stressed. This can make them tired and injury prone.
  • Headaches. No surprise here — stress is the most common cause of tension headaches. When you’re stressed, chances are you’re tensing the muscles at the back of your head and neck and sleeping less, which can also contribute to the pain.
  • Chronic pain. Emotional pain and chronic pain are interconnected. If you’re depressed, you’re more likely to have chronic pain, research has found. Conversely, if you have chronic pain, you’re more likely to be depressed. If you have chronic pain, it’s important to explore a pain management program with your physician, and address emotional issues as well.

If your pain is getting to a level you are unable to handle and nothing else is working, reach out to your primary care physician for help. If you are local to Southern California and are in search of a physician to help manage your pain, call (800)USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit www.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/ to schedule an appointment.

By Anne Fritz