How Our Stress (And Emotion) Affects Our Susceptibility To Burnout And Disease
One of the first things I learned about widowhood was that I was more likely to die than someone whose spouse was still alive. It’s called the widowhood effect, and yes, I know it’s a morbid fact to have in my back pocket, but morbidity and widowhood seem to go together. What wasn’t clear was exactly what was putting me—and other widows—more at risk for death. Maybe we were more likely to be reckless. Maybe we weren’t taking care of ourselves as waves of grief kept holding us under. Or maybe there was something else. Stress. Grief. Heartbreak. A combination of all of it, perhaps.
For so long we’ve known there’s a connection between the mind and body, our physical well-being and emotional, our central nervous system and our immune system. That knowing was largely intuitive, until groundbreaking work by researcher Dr. Esther Sternberg.
In her book, The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, she offers proof of the connection between our emotions and our physical health, and discusses the role stress plays in making us more susceptible to burnout and disease.
Chronic Stress Makes Us Susceptible To Disease
Within three minutes of a stressful event, the brain’s stress response triggers the release of a variety of hormones, including cortisol. Cortisol is “nature’s built-in alarm system. It’s your body’s main stress hormone.” It has the ability to change or completely shut down bodily functions, including the immune system. The stress hormones make the heart beat fast, make your stomach go sour, make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. They also help your vision clear, send blood to your muscles to power a run, and focus your attention.
All of this is great if you need to lean into that flight response. But, there’s a tipping point. Too much of even a good thing can often become a bad thing. As hormones continue to be released, performance suffers.
When the stress becomes chronic, the immune system becomes impaired. The continued presence of cortisol mutes the immune system. That muting results in immune cells which are less able to react to foreign invaders in the body.
Sternberg writes, “And so, if you are exposed to, say, a flu or common cold virus when you are chronically stressed out, your immune system is less able to react and you become more susceptible to that infection.”
Chronic Stress Leads To Burnout
Prolonged exposure to stress leads to a state Sternberg described as “burnout.”
In her book, she wrote, “Members of certain professions are more prone to burnout than others — nurses and teachers, for example, are among those at highest risk. These professionals are faced daily with caregiving situations in their work lives, often with inadequate pay, inadequate help in their jobs, and with too many patients or students in their charge.”
According to Sternberg, some studies are pointing to evidence that burnout is not just psychological, but also physiological. Burnt-out patients are showing evidence of a “flattened cortisol response and inability to respond to any stress with even a slight burst of cortisol.”
Essentially, chronic stress has led to an alteration of the entire stress response.
Emotions Can Affect Susceptibility To Disease
Sternberg wrote that, “[W]e are discovering that while feelings don’t directly cause or cure disease, the biological mechanisms underlying them may cause or contribute to disease.”
According to Sternberg, a number of the nerve pathways and molecules involved in inflammatory diseases, like arthritis, are the same as the ones involved in psychological responses, such as depressive thoughts. She argues that rather than asking if depressing thoughts are causing illness, we need to consider what molecules and nerve pathways cause those thoughts and then determine whether those are the same that cause illness. She suggests that it’s likely that if you’re predisposed to one, you’re also predisposed to the other.
Emotions and memory also play a role in our stress response. Emotional memories, as Sternberg names them, can affect parts of the brain that control our hormonal stress response. “We are even beginning to sort out how emotional memories reach the parts of the brain that control the hormonal stress response, and how such emotions can ultimately affect the workings of the immune system and thus affect illnesses as disparate as arthritis and cancer,” wrote Sternberg.
An event is stressful based on circumstances, settings, and even on memories and emotions associated with the stressful event. According to Sternberg, “Our perception of stress, and therefore our response to it, is an ever-changing thing that depends a great deal on the circumstances and settings in which we find ourselves.” For example, my heart rate soars every time I hear Columbia University — that’s where my husband received his final MRI. For most other people, Columbia University is just Columbia University—no real emotional or stress-related response.
Sternberg didn’t directly address the widowhood effect, but she mentioned loss in terms of PTSD, which relates to how memories impact current experiences. She also discussed loss of a loved one in terms of leading to or contributing to chronic stress and burnout. (No real surprise there.)
Ultimately, there’s a lot still left to understand about the interplay between our mind and body. One thing is clear though—there is a connection, on a very real cellular level. If anything, it’s another reason to take care of our mental and emotional health as well as we care for our physical health. As it turns out, it’s very likely that there can’t be one without the other.
This article was originally published on