After a stressful winter and spring, I'm finally taking a break from work. So of course, what better time to get sick? After a 4-day migraine (started on my first day of vacation - Friday) with a tension headache and neck spasm so bad I couldn't look left, I ended up in urgent care yesterday afternoon. One injection of muscle relaxer, plus prescriptions for more muscle relaxers and migraine meds, and I'm finally feeling better.
Why does this happen? Why is it that after weeks or months of stress, we get sick when we finally get to "come down"?
I've blogged a bit about stress before. Stress causes your body to release certain hormones, such as adrenaline and norepinephrine, which gives an immediate physiological response to stress, and cortisol, which takes a bit longer for you to feel at work in your body. And in fact, cortisol is also involved in many negative consequences of chronic stress. Over time, it can do things like increase blood sugar, suppress the immune system, and contribute to acne breakouts.
You're probably aware that symptoms of sickness are generally caused by your body reacting to and fighting the infection or virus. So the reason you suddenly get sick when the stressor goes away is because your immune system increases function, realizes there's a foreign body that doesn't belong, and starts fighting it. You had probably already caught the virus or infection, but didn't have symptoms like fever (your body's attempt to "cook" it out) or runny nose (your body increasing mucus production to push out the bug), that let you know you were sick.
And in my case in particular, a study published in Neurology found that migraine sufferers were at increased risk of an attack after the stress "let-down." According to the researchers, this effect is even stronger when there is a huge build-up of stress and a sudden, large let-down; it's better to have mini let-downs throughout the stressful experience.
And here I thought I was engaging in a good amount of self-care throughout my stressful February-May.
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