Over time, chronic stress can wreak havoc on your body. Continued stress can contribute to serious health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, as well as mental disorders like depression and anxiety  One less commonly-known health issue that can be brought on by stress is a condition known as Bell’s Palsy, aka, stress paralysis.
Stress Paralysis: One Woman’s Story
In August of 2019, nutritionist Danielle Ferguson had been feeling sluggish and tired for about a week. Thinking that she was coming down with a cold, the 29-year-old from California thought it was strange that she wasn’t having any other symptoms. She noticed one evening that her tongue felt numb, and then her jaw began to throb as if someone had punched her in the face.
When she awoke the next morning, the right side of her face was completely numb and paralyzed.
She was diagnosed with a condition called Bell’s Palsy, which doctors attributed to stress. She was given an oral steroid and antivirals and told that there was nothing she could have done to prevent it.
Mrs. Ferguson had gone to a clinic the day prior because of her symptoms, and a nurse told her that this could happen. Because of that, she was not as shocked as she might have been otherwise.
She became self-conscious about her condition, which caused her to shy away from outings and meetings with strangers. She began using social media to get in touch with other people who suffer from the same condition, and began chronicling her story on her Instagram page. Since then, she has gained more than twelve thousand followers.
“At first, I was shy about being around anyone other than my family, however I never really let that stop me from sharing with my Instagram community,” she said. “I found once I started sharing my story, people started to tell me they either had it or knew someone who did, and it created this sort of connection” .
Initially Ferguson did not think that she was under very much stress, but upon reflection she realized that she was putting herself under a lot of pressure.
“Looking back what I didn’t realise was everything I was doing or trying to do was based on my thinking I had to work hard in order to be worthy,” she said. “That headspace I was in had to be corrected and I think me getting Bell’s palsy was my body’s way of telling me that” .
She admits that she does still hide her smile sometimes when she laughs or smiles big, since that is when you can see how crooked her grin is. She is starting to see some movement return to the right side of her face, but she knows recovery is going to be a long, slow process.
What is Bell’s Palsy?
Bell’s Palsy is a sudden weakness or paralysis of the muscles on one side of the face. It is caused by the malfunction of the seventh cranial nerve, which is the facial nerve responsible for moving facial muscles, stimulating the salivary and tear glands, enabling the front two-thirds of the tongue to detect tastes, and controlling one of the muscles involved in hearing .
Bell’s palsy affects approximately forty thousand people in the United States every year . The exact cause is unknown, however it is thought to occur when the facial nerves become inflamed, potentially because of a viral infection such as herpes simplex virus or shingles, or a weakened immune system .
Symptoms of Bell’s Palsy
Pain behind the ear or in the jaw is often the first sign that there is a problem. The next symptom is the sudden weakening of facial muscles, which usually occurs within hours. The effect could be mild, or could result in complete stress paralysis, but the weakness reaches its maximum severity within 48 to 72 hours .
For some people, closing their eye on the affected side can be difficult, and they may not be able to close that eye completely. Production of both tears and saliva may be impaired as well, which can result in dry eyes and mouth, or drooling. With fewer tears being produced, the eye can also become dry, which can lead to eye damage if it is not moistened and protected another way .
Because the front of the tongue is affected, sufferers likely will be unable to taste with that part of the tongue. The ear on the affected side might also perceive sounds as unusually loud because the muscle that stretches the eardrum is paralysed .
Doctors can typically distinguish Bell’s Palsy from other facial paralysis disorders, such as a stroke, because a stroke typically only causes weakness in the lower part of the face, and usually involves the weakness of an arm or a leg. If a doctor is unsure whether the paralysis is being caused by Bell’s Palsy or another less common problem, such as Lyme disease, they can perform x-rays, blood tests, and MRI’s to confirm their suspicions .
Prognosis and Treatment
When facial paralysis is mild or partial, most people recover completely within several months, with or without treatment. If stress paralysis is complete, however, the patient may not experience complete recovery, and the facial muscles could remain weak, causing the face to droop .
If treated within 48 hours, a corticosteroid can be administered to reduce the swelling of the facial nerve. A doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication, however, their efficacy is still unclear. If the patient is unable to close their eye, they will need eye drops, and potentially an eye mask, particularly at night while they’re sleeping .
In any case, this condition tends to be common among those who experience chronic stress. You may even know someone who’s experienced it.
Ryan Seacrest- Did He Have a Stroke on National T.V.?
Facial paralysis made headlines recently when T.V. personality Ryan Seacrest appeared to lose control of the muscles on the left side of his face and slurred his speech while broadcasting and episode of American Idol from his home.
When he was absent from his role as co-host on Live with Kelly and Ryan the following morning, fans became concerned. A representative for the celebrity, however, assured fans that Ryan did not, in fact, have a stroke.
“Ryan did not have any kind of stroke last night,” the representative wrote. “Like many people right now, Ryan is adjusting to the new normal and finding work-home balance, with the added stress of having to put on live shows from home.” 
Seacrest had been juggling three to four on-air jobs over the last several weeks, and, according to his reps, was simply suffering from over-exhaustion, which prompted him to take a much-needed day off.
He returned to his post the following day, thanking Ripa’s husband, Mark Consuelos, for filling in for him.
“I want to thank Mark for filling in yesterday. I appreciate that,” said Seacrest. “Also, the very kind well-wishes for my exhaustion. [I’ve been] working round-the-clock, so I got a day off to relax,” .
While nothing has been disclosed by Seacrest’s team, some experts believe that what happened to him on-air could be a sign of Bell’s Palsy. He is not the only celebrity to have been affected by this- Angelina Jolie was affected by the condition in 2016 when she was undergoing a double mastectomy and at the beginning of a challenging divorce with then-husband, Brad Pitt .
Reduce Stress to Improve Health
All of these instances are examples of the severe damage stress can do to your body. As Danielle Ferguson continues her recovery, she is trying to inspire and encourage others to take care of themselves.
“I want to help others be health advocates for themselves and take back control of their own health and if that is inspiration then, yes, I want to inspire others to do this,” she said .
Reducing stress is just as important to your health as getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet, so if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it is important to take steps toward reducing stress, whether that be talking with a friend of therapist, spending some quiet time outdoors, stretching, meditating, or engaging in a hobby that makes you feel calm and centered.