When Marc Schoen was attending college at the University of California, working toward his PhD in psychology, he repeatedly experienced a surprising health-and-illness pattern around the time of final exams. Although he survived and even thrived before and during the grueling exams, his body seemed to crumble as soon as those tests were over. Finally able to relax, he'd be preyed upon by one malicious infectious bug or another, most often causing colds or the flu.
"I managed to stay very healthy until finals were done -- and then I'd [collapse]," he recalls.
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Later, when Schoen began treating patients at UCLA and Cedars-Sinai hospitals in Los Angeles, he'd never get sick himself -- until he went on vacation. Almost on cue, as his body transitioned from his hectic, stressful work schedule to times of relaxation, he would become ill.
That's when Schoen began studying the phenomenon of post-stress illnesses, only to find that his own experiences weren't unusual. While stress itself has been associated with health problems -- from high blood pressure to low-back pain -- another phenomenon, the so-called "let-down effect," may also be at work.
In the immediate aftermath of stressful times -- perhaps following an anxiety-producing project at work or a major family crisis -- when you finally have time to take a deep breath and unwind, that's when illness can unexpectedly strike. Just when you're letting down her hair, your ability to fight off illnesses may let you down.
Paul Rosch, MD, president of the American Institute of Stress and clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at New York Medical College, concurs that while people respond differently to stress, "when individuals are subjected to chronic stress, some of them are going to show physical or psychological effects even after the stress itself is relieved."
How Does This Happen?
When you're straining and struggling under the burden of work or family pressures, your body releases a number of chemicals -- including stress hormones -- which mobilize your immune system against illness. But when the stressful period ends, your immune system pulls back its troops, and the body becomes less vigilant in weeding out invaders. At the same time, says Schoen, a reservoir of body chemicals called prostaglandins, left over from the stress response, tends to produce inflammation, and can trigger problems like arthritic pain and migraines.