Why Ruminating Takes a Toll on Your Body

We’ve all heard that stress affects our health. And on some level, we get it. These last few weeks as our lives have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have felt an ever-present level of anxiety. We catch ourselves holding our breath, or losing our temper over the smallest things. Some of us notice that our bodies feel tense. Others have a hard time sleeping.

As you experience your body’s physiological responses to stress, you may assume that you understand what it means for stress to have an “adverse impact on your health.”

But according to senior faculty Nick Petrie, who has studied the ways stress affects our physical and mental health, some of stress’s most damaging side effects may go unnoticed in the short term and only manifest themselves over the long term.

Petrie says the process of rumination — thinking about experiences from the past or imaging scenarios in the future, and attaching negative emotions to them — is what causes stress.

In the video below, Petrie explains 3 ways that stress can hinder our health, happiness, and productivity.

3 Ways Stress Affects You

In the video below, Petrie explains to fellow faculty Phil Willburn what happens to our bodies when we are stressed.

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1. Stress affects your health.

People who consistently feel stress frequently ruminate. Over time, constant rumination can lead to heart problems. Here’s why: When your body goes into fight or flight, it release 2 hormones into your system.

The first hormone is adrenaline, which causes your heart to speed up. “It’s like a river during a flood, except it’s blood flowing through,” Petrie explains. “When that blood hits the artery wall, plaque builds up. If it builds up enough, people have heart attacks.”

Another physical toll that stress takes on the body is the release of cortisol, a steroid hormone. “In order to produce cortisol, your body needs to put some things on hold, and what the body puts on hold is white blood cell production,” Petrie says. Without white blood cell production, people have a suppressed immune system and are more susceptible to illness.

2. Stress affects your attitude.

People who frequently ruminate because they are stressed often verbalize their thoughts. Verbal rumination not only perpetuates the negative emotions they’ve associated with their experiences, but it also affects the attitude and resilience of those around them. “If you’re in a team and team members are verbally ruminating, it can make you feel miserable,” says Petrie.

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3. Stress affects your productivity.

People who spend the majority of their time ruminating are not present. Therefore they struggle with focusing, and as a result are often less productive at work.

“Stress is not a good thing. There is nothing useful about it,” says Petrie. “And it all starts with rumination.” The more that people can be intentional about focusing their attention on the present, and not marinating their thoughts in the past or worrying about the future, the more resilient they will become.

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