Why do I get sick after I work too much?

Written by: Chelsea Pottenger | March 31, 2020

Have you ever noticed that when you’ve been logging long hours, breathing shallow, eating poorly and working reactively to get through the workload or issues at hand, that as soon as that period of excessive work or stress is over, you get sick?


“During an adrenaline rush, your strength and pain threshold actually increase, and cortisol and other hormones mask your body’s weakened state…”


Now, that doesn’t mean you come down with a major illness, it could be that when the stress is over, you get a headache, or a cold, fatigue or a panic attack, perhaps digestive problems, or a flare up of existing conditions like asthma, arthritis or a skin condition. This post-stress illness is quite common, and known as ‘the let-down effect’.


What is the let-down effect?

Quite simply, it’s a biochemical reaction that results in a weakened immunity and therefore leaving you vulnerable to illness. Some call it the ‘post adrenaline blues’ but its more common name is ‘the let-down effect’.

I’ve written about the fight or flight response previously, where your body goes into survival mode when faced with a perceived threat. That threat might be a large work project, a business sale/merger/acquisition, a messy divorce, a conflict with family or co-workers, or just too large a workload and not enough hours in the day. 

When you experience stress, your body releases cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine and other key hormones to assist you in either fighting off the danger, or running away from it (fight or flight). That hormone release happens in just seconds, and is what increases your heart rate, makes your breath shallow (as it relaxes your airways to send more oxygen to your muscles so you can move quicker), and sharpens your mental focus so you are more able to think quicker and form an escape plan or work excessively long hours to finish that work project.


Why don’t I get sick until after stressful work periods? 

During an adrenaline rush, your strength and pain threshold actually increases, and cortisol and other hormones mask your body’s weakened state, meaning you may not notice those arthritis twinges or that headache. As your stress comes to an end, and your brain realises the danger has subsided, your hormones return to more normal levels. You are left with nothing to hide your weakened body and you feel sick. The sudden drop in cortisol and other hormones can result in a headache, and researchers have discovered glucocorticoids (like cortisol) can actually re-activate latent viral infections like herpes simplex 1 (cold sores), or shingles.


What can I do to avoid the let-down effect? 

Eat and sleep well. 

Even during times of excessive work or extreme stress, try to eat and sleep well (sleep is the magic pill!), as this will help improve your immunity and ability to respond to stress. 

• Meditate. 

Clinical research shows that after eight weeks of meditating 20 minutes per day, the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for stress and anxiety) decreases in size. You will notice you are less anxious, reactive and stressed.

• Use the first eight minutes of your morning. 

Do gentle stretches, practice 30 seconds of gratitude, and look at a visual representation of your goals. Looking at imagery of your goals helps wire your brain for happiness, success and a positive mindset. If you put this imagery in your bedroom, you don’t even have to get out of bed!


Learn more about recharging your brain at eqconsultingco.com and eqminds.com

Success North Queensland