The “Let-Down” Effect, or why you “Crash” After a Period of Prolonged Stress

2022/09/02 Home Education and advice

The “Let-Down” Effect, or why you “Crash” After a Period of Prolonged Stress
Anthony Pinard Anthony Pinard Osteopath/Associate

Post-Stress Illness

Everybody knows someone who falls sick when they are finally on vacation.  They finally land on the beach, everything is good.  Then over the next few days it happens, like clockwork: flu, low-back pain, headache, stomach pains, skin outbreaks, fatigue.

According to Dr Marc Shoen, psychologist and assistant clinical professor at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine, the Let Down Effect is a common condition, where you can feel ill or sick following stressful events or periods, such as conflict, time pressured work projects, or school exams.  It can also happen after positive events, such as a wedding or a sports competition.

The let-down effect usually comes about during weekends, vacations, holidays, or big life transitions like a move, a job change, or retirement.

It is known that stress has an impact on the immune system, and that acute or chronic stress can lead to illness.  A recent observational study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) illustrated the correlation between stress-related disorders and the onset of autoimmune diseases (Song H, et al, 2018).

However, there seems to be a large subset of individuals, who can develop physical symptoms or illnesses after the stressful event comes to an end.

What’s going on?

“Illness during this let-down period may come in two ways,” according to Schoen, author of When Relaxation Is Hazardous to Your Health. “It could be related to something we were exposed to in the throes of stress. Or it might be something that develops afterward through this open window, where any organisms around us have a far greater chance of infecting us.”

During a period of stress, the body mobilises energy and the immune system through biochemical changes in order to boost our response to the stressor, whether it’s physical or mental.  The acceleration of the rate of inflammation in the body is normal and warranted to allow us to confront the stressful event.  After the period of stress subsides, the body naturally decreases its response and generally wants to rest and sleep, which is healthy.  However, when we de-stress too rapidly, it possibly leads to biochemical changes that unfortunately result in a weakened immunity, which opens the door to illness or physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomach disorders, panic attacks, and other pain reactions.


Ok, so how can I avoid the Let-Down Effect?

According to Dr Schoen, the best chance to avoid the Let-Down Effect is to de-stress progressively, keeping the mind or body active in a way that keeps the immune system on alert. He suggests techniques that activate the immune system a little, such as going for a short run, brisk 20 minute walk, or walking up and down 3 flights of stairs. These short bursts of exercise can trigger a positive immune-system response.

Mental activities are also useful, such as crossword puzzles, under time constraints. “Several studies show that doing math computations at a rapid pace actually increases immune-system activity,” says Schoen.

Finally, breathing exercises are also useful to give the mind and body a break from a stressful day. Consciously slowing down our breath and breathing through the abdomen. This has been shown to decrease heart-rate and blood-pressure, and to slow down brain waves.

Paul Rosch, MD, president of the American Institute of Stress and clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at New York Medical College, states that: “Just as stress is different for each of us, there is no stress-reduction strategy that’s a panacea,” says Rosch. “Exercise, meditation, or yoga work great for some people, but prove dull and stressful when arbitrarily imposed on others. You have to find what works for you.”

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