Like a police force, our immune system deals with invaders of our bodies to protect our bodies from getting sick. Our immune system is comprised of billions of white blood cells (lymphocytes and phagocytes) that fight off bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells in the body. But how is our immune system be affected by stress, if stress is not a bacteria, virus, or a cancerous cell?
Many factors contribute to stress. But whatever the cause, stress creates a hormone in your body called cortisol. Cortisol can suppress your immune system’s effectiveness in fighting off invaders by lowering the number of lymphocytes present in the blood and interfering with normal white blood cell communication.
It is relatively difficult for a person to recover from stress-related illnesses as the cause is usually complex and multi-layered with biological, psychological and social factors. To compound things, when our bodies have elevated stress levels over an extended period of time (more than a few days) the autonomic nervous system begins to accept this heightened stress level as normal. It continues to produce high levels of stress hormones well after the stressful event has passed further compromising the immune system. People in this state are often irritable, angry, anxious, have panic attacks or racing thoughts. The process of returning to their normal, calm and balanced state can include mindfulness practices that teach a person to be aware of their breath, mind and body sensations such as meditation, yoga. For some, guidance from a behavioral health professional is necessary.
A person who is stressed may resort to unhealthy behaviors like smoking, drinking, and sometimes drug use, to cope with stress. These activities also compromise the immune system and may cause other health conditions like headaches, infectious illnesses like flu, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, and gastric ulcers. Signs of low immunity are:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Catch cold easily
- Frequent cold sores
- Suffering from a chronic condition
Chronic infections like colds and cough are signs that your immune system is compromised. When your immunity becomes weak, a repetitive cycle is set up making it hard to overcome your tendency toward infection.
The current health emergency is causing many people to feel more stressed. Here are three things you can do to ease worry and anxiety:
- Take a break in watching, listening, or reading the news, including social media. Seeing updates can be upsetting so schedule a limited amount of time for news updates.
- Do not be swayed by all the information you see on social media. Always fact-check with reliable sources like the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
- Sharing accurate information can help ease worries too. Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and recreational drugs, as they can lower your immune system’s ability to respond to infection.
How to overcome stress-related illnesses?
Stress affects not only your emotional state but also your body. Remove stress from your life, especially chronic stress through:
- Regular exercise. Beat cortisol levels and other stress hormones through exercise. Exercise helps release ‘feel-good’ hormones such as endorphins to relatively improve your mood, sleep, and also combat pain.
- Get enough sleep. Avoid caffeinated drinks as much as possible in the afternoon so you can comfortably ease into sleep at night. Getting enough sleep can clear your mind and improve your overall wellbeing.
- Hang out with family and friends. Friends and family are the pillars of strength for us to manage stress and other emotional problems. A study found that women in particular, who spend more time with family, friends, and children, help release oxytocin, a natural stress reliever.
- Engaging in social events can help you lower risks of depression and anxiety. Learn to say NO. It is impossible to manage stressors especially those that are out of your control. Knowing your limitations in taking responsibilities and learning how to say ‘NO’ helps you manage your stressors, and as much as possible do not add things that will unnecessarily add to your load.
- Stay on top of priorities. Procrastination is a disease that sucks out motivation in you and leaving you scrambling later. Learn to get in the habit of making a to-do list that organizes.
- Write it down. Recording what you’re stressed about is an excellent approach to handle stress. Writing about what gives you stress in your journal can help you assess the factors that bring stress in your life.
- Another way of managing stress is to jot down the things that you are thankful for. Gratitude helps relieve stress and anxiety because it enables you to focus on the positive things in your life.
- Be mindful. Practicing mindfulness helps to increase self-esteem that lowers symptoms of anxiety and depression. Mindfulness also combats the anxiety-inducing effects of negative thinking. Several ways of practicing mindfulness include yoga and meditation. If you’d like to try mindfulness at home, try this recording from Behavioral Health staff at Sunshine.