Stress is hard to define, but we all know it when we are feeling it. A “stressor” can be any physical, chemical, or emotional factor that our mind and body respond to, costing energy and emotional resources. And, the physical process of overcoming stressors can impact us physically.
Stressors can manifest in so many different forms, as almost anything can cause stress, including:
- Tobacco use or secondhand smoke inhalation
- Pollutants in the air
- Heavy vibrations (such as from machinery or construction)
- Too much Heat
- Too much Cold
- Difficult tasks or chores at work, home, or school
- Rocky patches in relationships
- Financial troubles
- Ultraviolet light
- Injury or illness
- Traumatic events
- PTSD (Which has been linked to a three times higher chance of developing an autoimmune disease)
- Surgery and other medical procedures
- Medications, especially new ones
Even positive events can be stressors such as a marriage, the birth of a child, a big promotion, a birthday party, a big accomplishment.
Stress can also seem to be invisible. It’s possible to be difficult to identify stressors that you are feeling, or to become accustomed to feeling certain stress. But it can still require a response from the body.
Acute (a single major event) and chronic (long term) stress are linked in research to many of the symptoms of lupus, including back pain, foot pain, joint pain, general pain throughout the body, insomnia, hives, migraines, and hair loss. It can also increase a person’s risk of infection, which is a huge danger for people with lupus who are already immunocompromised. Infection is also another stressor and may make symptoms flare up in addition to the symptoms of the disease.
Stress causes the immune system to behave abnormally. This can add challenges for people with autoimmune diseases who already have immune systems that misclassify and attack cells within their own bodies. When exposed to stress, their immune system misbehaves further out of control, leading to a sudden increase in symptoms.
Stress also causes the body to release hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, which regulate many body systems. This hormone secretion happens even if a person has good coping mechanisms, and doesn’t “feel stressed.” For this reason, cortisol levels in the bloodstream are used as a reliable measure of stress in scientific studies.
Stress has been studied extensively, but aside from cortisol levels, it is still difficult to define. However, some distinctions in the impact of stress have been made. Small, daily stressors (such as a challenging work environment, poor diet, humidity, and insomnia) that build up over time, known as chronic stress, are more damaging than a single major stressful event (such as a major accident or a death in the family). The elevated hormone levels and immune system changes work on the body and mind over time and cause more, longer-lasting damage.
One type of damage that may be caused by chronic stress is called oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress and lupus
Oxidative stress is a process that naturally occurs in our bodies. It starts with mitochondria, little cells within our cells that turn the raw materials that we eat and oxygen into energy for the cell. As a by-product, they produce oxygen molecules that are highly volatile, known as “reactive oxygen species” or “free radicals.” These free radicals have too many electrons, which they give to other molecules in the cell, including enzymes and DNA. This is called a reaction, and it causes chaos as molecules break apart, change shape, and become useless to the cell.
The body has ways to stop oxidative stress, using substances called antioxidants, which either take away the extra electron or bind up the free radical, where it can cause no more harm. You might be familiar with some antioxidants, including Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, vitamin A, and vitamin E. This is one of the reasons it’s important to eat fresh fish, fruits and vegetables.
However, when stressed, the body seems to produce more free radicals than usual. While this may help prevent infection (free radicals hurt bacteria and viruses, too), it also leads to more cell damage. This damage may then lead to symptom flares, or make a symptom flare worse.
What you can do about stress
While there is still plenty that we don’t know about the impact of stress on Lupus Warriors, there are plenty of strategies for minimizing it. Some common strategies include:
Green tea or lightly-cooked Camellia sinensis, has many beneficial compounds, including epigallocatechin-3-gallate and polyphenols, that help regulate the immune response. The benefits of green tea have helped people around the world for centuries.
Art therapy uses art – such as drawing, painting, or sculpting — to help people with lupus express themselves creatively. In our article on art therapy, we discuss how the science supports using this kind of creative outlet to reduce stress and ease lupus symptoms.
Writing therapy is similar to art therapy in that it is a way for people with lupus to express themselves. In this case, however, the subject is oneself – the complicated hopes, dreams, thoughts, and feelings of life and living with lupus. Keeping a journal or diary is an effective, and therapeutic way, to practice writing therapy.
Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils – the oils responsible for the smells and tastes of plants – to “balance, harmonize, and promote the health of body, mind, and spirit.” Aromatherapy has little science supporting it, and some smells or essential oils might even trigger a symptom flare if used haphazardly. However, in our article on aromatherapy, we talk about how using certain oils may be relaxing, and help relieve stress.
Music therapy is the use of music to reduce stress, usually by listening to it to ‘come down from’ a stressful situation or to even shift the perception of a current situation. In our article on stress, lupus, and music, we talk about a study that saw lowered anxiety and feelings of stress after listening to self-selected or classical music. Make sure not to play your music too loud — as that can cause stress and damage your ears!
Acupuncture uses thin, solid metal needles that are carefully inserted into the skin at specific points, called meridians. Acupuncture can also include heat, herbal therapies, or mild electrical stimulation. In our article on acupuncture, we discuss its possible benefits for relieving stress and helping with lupus symptoms.
Positive affirmations are a verbal exercise where you repeat positive phrases to yourself, out loud, at least once a day. In our article on positive affirmation, we reveal that something so simple can help reduce stress, improve self-esteem, and change the way the brain works – improving mood.
You can do a lot to reduce your exposure to stressors. As we discuss in our stress and pain relief article here, you should try eating healthy as often as possible, and wearing clothes that keep you comfortably warm and protect you from light. Exercise is also a good habit to have, as it can help prevent stress.
Stress may be difficult to avoid at work, but taking breaks and pacing yourself will go a long way to holding back a symptom flare. Take care of yourself – you deserve it.
ZseTaun Washington, a Lupus Warrior and member of the LupusCorner community, was...
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