“Don’t stress, it’s bad for your health,” may sound like hokey advice, similar to popular phrases like “YOLO” and “nice guys finish last.” But in reality, stress can negatively affect your health, and you should avoid it if you can.
As it turns out, there’s scientific evidence behind the idea of reducing your stress levels. Generally speaking, stress affects a person’s mental and physical health. But if we’re being specific, stress may have a direct link to one disease in particular.
Shingles is somewhat of an unusual disease in that it comes with a sort of “one-two punch” of infections. Everyone who’s had shingles has had chickenpox first, usually decades earlier. The reason for this is simple: they come from the same virus.
If you’ve ever had chickenpox, you’re at risk for shingles because you’ve been infected by the varicella-zoster virus. Like other viruses, varicella-zoster remains dormant inside your body even after the chickenpox outbreak has passed.
Shingles usually begins with some tingling or local pain in a single area, usually accompanied by headache, fever, and malaise. Sometimes sensations of burning pain, itching, oversensitivity, and pins and needles on the skin, can be mild or downright agonizing as well.
A few days later, a large painful rash with blisters will form. This usually occurs on either the right or left side of the body, commonly on the torso. It is also known to appear on the face, often near the eye. The rash will usually last for a few days, but in some cases sticks around for weeks.
While it’s not clear that the varicella-zoster virus reactivates in some people and not others, there is some new medical research that points toward a a culprit that you probably wouldn’t have suspected: stress.
While stress doesn’t technically cause shingles, it can be a contributing factor in the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus. That’s because emotional stress has been shown in numerous studies to weaken the body’s immune system.
We experience stress to some degree or another during the course of our lives. Everyday stress levels that come along with our jobs and relationships are usually simple enough to manage. But when life-changing events occur, such as starting a new job, getting married, or the death of a loved one, our stress levels increase significantly.
At those times of heightened stress, adrenaline and cortisol levels, as well as heart rate and blood pressure, are elevated, reducing the immune system’s ability to respond normally.
It also doesn’t help that stress can indirectly harm our immune systems. As we often resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms like tobacco, caffeine, alcohol, and eating “comfort foods,” we may not take into account the indirect effects of those habits.
Worse With Age
The immune system-suppressing effect of stress is more pronounced for people over the age of 50. So it’s no coincidence that 50 is the age at which shingles outbreaks become much more common.
There Are Options
As with chickenpox, there is no cure for shingles, and, thankfully, most people who have an outbreak only get it once. If you’re one of the unlucky people who has an outbreak there are a few things you can do at home to treat it.
Take It Easy
First and foremost, the more rest you get, the quicker you’ll get over shingles. Keeping your activity to a minimum allows your body to divert more energy inward toward fighting the sickness rather than spending it outwardly.
Your doctor may also recommend an analgesic to manage the pain, typically in the form of an over-the-counter medication or Calamine Lotion. They may also prescribe antiviral medications to reduce the severity and duration of shingles.
Other things you can do at home include using cool washcloths on the rash, taking oatmeal baths to reduce itchiness and pain on the skin, and perhaps most importantly, doing whatever you can to reduce your stress levels.
That’s because studies have shown that people under stress are more likely to experience prolonged pain as a result of postherpetic neuralgia, a complication where shingles pain can persist long after the rash has cleared.
Stress also keeps the immune system weak during the illness, which prevents a rapid recovery. So for those suffering from shingles or for those who would like to reduce their risk of getting it, there are simple things you can do to reduce your stress levels.
Identify The Problem
First, identify the things that trigger stress in you, and whenever possible, avoid those situations. If unavoidable, try to at least lessen the impact of those triggers.
Talk To Someone
Second, find a healthy way to talk about your feelings of stress. Simply discussing what is stressing you with a loved one, a trusted friend, or a mental health professional can do wonders for you.
Third, adopt healthy lifestyle choices wherever possible. Getting enough sleep, following a nutritious diet, and exercising regularly go a lot further toward reducing your stress levels than you might think. Talk to a doctor about finding the right exercise regimen for you.
Finally, find a relaxation technique that works for you, and use it when you start to feel stressed. This will be different for each person and can range from breathing techniques, to meditation, to prayer. If you’re at a loss for what to do, simply reminding yourself of the positives in your life may be of some help.