3 Ways stress affects your health

3-ways-stressAs nurses we swim constantly in the sea of incredible and complete stress.

In fact, some of us may utter a feral growl when confronted, our nerves stretched so raw and thin that any little upset can cause us to collapse.

Working a med-surg floor, I knew stress.  Constantly, I felt my heart racing, my mind struggling to think, and the worries following me even when I was at home.

Unfortunately, stress is as much a part of our profession as our stethoscopes.

It’s not a good thing, though, not a point of pride, and not an acceptable occupational hazard.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health care costs for stressed workers are 50 percent higher than those who do not report stress at work.

Yeah, I didn’t believe it, either, but that’s what the bean counters say.

It is important to take a look at all the various ways stress affects our bodies, and from this, we can get an idea of how dangerous it really is for us.  In part two, we will look at ways to decrease stress in a constantly stressful world.

Stress and the Stomach

As most nurses know, the stress response causes blood to shunt away from the extremities and not needed functions.  This is to prepare the body to fight, flight, or freeze, the blood flow directed to the heart, lungs, and brain.

When you are like this all the time, though, from a stressful job, the organs that don’t regularly receive blood in a stress situation can suffer.

No other organ system suffers more from this phenomenon than the digestive system.

It isn’t unusual for decreased blood flow to cause nausea, vomiting, indigestion, and constipation.

Stress robs your body of the processes it needs to digest food.

In addition, stress has been linked with ulcers, but the jury is still out on the causative relationship.  Although we know that H. pylori causes stomach ulcers, some researchers are still looking into the relationship between this painful condition and chronic stress.

Stress and Thinking

You know that feeling you get when you just can’t remember what room you pulled that narc for?  I know I certainly do, and stress can cause you to act this way.

The stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, make reasoned thought something that can elude you.

It’s hard to think when your brain is constantly in survival mode, just trying to make it through.

Many nurses suffer from tunnel vision that comes with the job.  Unfortunately, it is more likely to lead to mistakes and poorer outcomes for patients.

Not to say that your shift should be a Zen experience.

However, the stress tends to follow nurses home, and the constant bombardment of stress hormones can mean that the nurse – who was surviving quite well at first – may progressively become unable to make decisions when needed.

Stress and the Immune System

Coughs, colds, flus, and other various illnesses plague nurses.  This could be because we are exposed to every bug known to man, or it could be because our immune system is lower because of stress.

It’s rather like the chicken and the egg thing.

Stress can cause your immune system to stand up and revolt, partially because of the theft of resources for stress related processes and part because the stress hormones don’t play nice with the immune system.

“This doesn’t help you, your coworkers, or your patients.”

Yet, an argument could be made that we are just exposed to more infections than the average person.

However, could we possibly fight those bugs off more effectively if we didn’t have stress-ravaged immune systems?

No one likes to call off sick.  It leaves the floor short staffed, stresses your fellow nurses, and can put patients in danger.

When stress becomes so common that you don’t even realize how stressed you are, though, sick calls become more common or you come into work with an infection.

This doesn’t help you, your coworkers, or your patients. In the end, stress can wreak havoc on a person’s natural defenses, and burn out, serious illness, and emotional distress are likely to follow.

Stress can affect a number of other problems, as well, including heart disease, blood pressure, and strokes.

Unfortunately, the research into this is preliminary, but there is enough evidence to show that it can really affect your health beyond ulcers, depression, and colds.

This is a public health problem that afflicts many professions, but medical practitioners are more at risk.

Decreasing stress, improving the profession, and realizing that you have a tremendous amount of worry are some of the ways, among others, to combat this nursing epidemic.

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