Can stress cause swollen lymph nodes?
Have you noticed the presence of swollen lymph nodes along your neck or armpits? This can be a potential trigger for nervousness in some people. However, swollen lymph nodes can occur for a variety of reasons, and this swelling doesn’t necessarily mean that you have something serious. Aside from infections, anxiety and stress may also lead to swollen lymph nodes in some cases.
Below, we’ll discuss what lymph nodes are, what may cause them to become swollen, and the relationship between stress and swollen lymph nodes.
What are lymph nodes?
Lymph nodes are small organs located throughout the body and are part of the immune system. They can help to defend the body against illness and disease by filtering out harmful substances and supporting your overall immune responses. According to the Cleveland Clinic, everyone has hundreds of lymph nodes throughout their body, but the most well-known are in the neck, armpits, and groin. Lymph nodes often store white blood cells, which can fight off harmful bacteria to keep the body healthy and safe from many common illnesses.
Exploring the physiology: Lymph nodes and your immune response
When the body is subject to stress or infection, the lymph nodes can swell and become larger than usual. Symptoms of swollen lymph nodes, bodily strain, or immunodeficiency may vary. For example, lymph nodes can become tender to the touch, or you may experience symptoms of fever, congestion, sore throat, headache, lightheadedness, fainting, high blood pressure, or malaise.
In most cases, lymph nodes can return to their normal size once the body has fought off the source of infection or disease. However, if you start feeling symptoms such as an accelerated or irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest pain, or excessive fatigue, you might consider seeing a doctor for further assessment. You may also choose to see a doctor if you’re experiencing chronically swollen lymph nodes with no obvious physical cause or exposure.
What is the scientific link between swollen lymph nodes and stress?
Stress and anxiety can sometimes lead to swollen lymph nodes, but the connection isn’t fully understood.
Stress, anxiety, and swollen lymph nodes
If you think you have swollen lymph nodes, you may benefit from speaking with a healthcare provider. Sometimes, people try to assess their own lymph nodes, but a healthcare provider has the training and experience to distinguish between a sensation of enlargement and truly swollen lymph nodes. If you do have swollen lymph nodes, a healthcare provider may order tests to try to determine the cause.
If they don’t find a medical cause of swollen lymph nodes, you may be experiencing stress and anxiety, which can cause a variety of other symptoms. Physical symptoms that could be indicative of anxiety may include fatigue, lethargy, unexplained or persistent physical pain, muscle tension, soreness, and gastrointestinal distress. Individuals experiencing anxiety and stress may feel both physically and mentally exhausted, even if they haven't performed any strenuous activities. This may be due to the taxing nature of anxiety.
Stress and anxiety can lead to a variety of mental and behavioral symptoms as well. Common behavioral symptoms can include changes in appetite and trouble sleeping or excessive sleep. Other symptoms may include irritability, excessive worrying, and nervousness.
How to treat stress and anxiety
If you're experiencing episodes of chronic stress and manifestations of anxiety, there are a variety of evidence-based treatment options that may help. You might explore different options to find a combination that works best for you. The following are just a few strategies you might try.
If you're feeling stressed out, you may try incorporating exercise into your daily routine—even if you haven’t done it regularly before. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise leads to the release of endorphins, one of the body’s “feel good” neurotransmitters, which may boost your mood. Also, exercise may redirect or interrupt negative thought patterns caused by stress or anxiety.
Other lifestyle changes that may help with stress and anxiety may include eating a more healthful, well-rounded diet. Research suggests that nutritious foods may improve cognitive functioning, which may, in turn, lead to reduced stress. Aside from incorporating more nutritious foods into your diet, you may benefit from reducing your use of alcohol and other substances. Despite the temporary relaxation often brought about by alcohol, research shows that alcohol can actually increase anxiety for many people.
When you’re feeling high-stress levels, it may help to prioritize sleep more than you normally would. Research suggests that high-quality sleep can increase cognitive functioning during the day, which may lead to reduced stress if you’re able to be more productive.
To improve your sleep, you may find it helpful to engage in rigorous exercise during the day. However, it may be best to avoid exercise within two hours of going to bed in order to prepare your body and mind for rest. Also, according to Harvard Medical School, it may help to reduce your use of screens before bed, as screens tend to emit blue light that can keep you awake at night.
If you’re considering implementing some of these lifestyle changes for stress, you might consider starting small. This may help you to avoid becoming discouraged if you don’t meet all your goals. Also, if something isn’t working for you, you might try some other strategies to reduce stress and anxiety. You can also speak with a healthcare provider, who may recommend medication temporarily if needed.
If you're experiencing anxiety, medication prescribed by a doctor may help to manage your symptoms. Everyone can react differently to different medications, so it may take a few tries to find an option that works best for you. It’s recommended that you not begin medication without speaking with a physician about your medical history and any other medications you take. In addition to assessing your health and possibly prescribing medication, a doctor may recommend therapy to help reduce your stress level.
Therapy for stress and anxiety
Whether you experience mild, moderate, or severe stress and anxiety, you may benefit from speaking with a licensed therapist. If stress makes it difficult to see a therapist in the office at this time, you might consider online therapy. With online therapy, you can discuss your symptoms of stress with a therapist from the comfort of home or anywhere with an internet connection. You can communicate with a therapist via phone, videoconferencing, or live chat at a time that works for your schedule.
Research shows that online therapy is effective for a variety of mental health challenges. One study published in 2017 found that internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy was effective for generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, depression, substance use disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, among other conditions.
You may also find it helpful to speak with a licensed therapist, whether in your community or online. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed therapist who has training and experience treating stress and anxiety, regardless of the cause. Take the first step toward stress reduction and reach out to BetterHelp today.
Why do I suddenly have swollen lymph nodes?
A few potential causes of swollen lymph nodes include infection, inflammatory conditions, abscesses, and cancer. Infection tends to be the most common cause of swollen lymph nodes by far.
It can be common to experience swollen lymph nodes and night sweats when fighting off an infection. You may also feel more pressure in your lymph nodes when this occurs. These symptoms can all be signs that your body is responding appropriately to infection.
Can impact cause swollen lymph nodes?
In some cases, injuries can lead to swollen lymph nodes or swollen glands.
How does stress affect lymph?
When an individual is stressed, they usually experience an increase in cortisol, frequently referred to as “the stress hormone,” in the brain. An excess of cortisol can impede the flow of lymph and potentially lead to the breakdown of lymphatic tissue, which can also negatively impact immune function.
Sometimes, lymph nodes may swell and feel larger than usual due to psychological stress or severe anxiety. Those living with anxiety disorders may notice swollen lymph nodes. It can be wise to consult a medical professional if this is the case for you.
Are swollen lymph nodes movable?
In general, you should be able to move swollen lymph nodes, and swelling shouldn’t necessarily lead you to worry. If your lymph nodes are not movable, feel hard and rubbery, or have grown to a half-inch or larger, it’s recommended to visit your doctor.
How long do lymph nodes stay swollen?
In most cases, swollen lymph nodes will return to normal within a few weeks. If they remain swollen for a longer period of time, it’s best to seek medical attention, as this can be a sign of serious illness. Higher levels of inflammation may indicate the risk of a medical concern that needs treatment.
Is it normal to feel your lymph nodes?
Most people can find their lymph nodes, particularly those that are located in the neck and the groin. You also have lymph nodes in other areas, like your stomach, although they can be harder to locate. It can be normal to notice pea- or bean-sized nodes, although those larger than a half-inch may warrant a visit to the doctor. Lymph nodes swell in response to infection and other causes, and notable inflammation can indicate the need for treatment.
How big is a swollen lymph node?
The average lymph node is usually around the size of a pea, so anything larger than a pea may indicate some swelling.
How do I know if I have swollen lymph nodes?
Swollen lymph nodes may be tender to the touch, and they usually feel like soft, round bumps. If you’re concerned that your lymph nodes may be swollen, it’s usually best to see a doctor. Although swollen lymph nodes aren’t necessarily a cause for concern, it can be best to rule out any significant health issues.
Can lymph nodes be removed?
In some situations, lymph nodes may be surgically removed. This usually happens in the case of cancer and is called a lymphadenectomy.
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