Stress. We know it’s bad for us and that we should decrease it in our lives but have you ever wondered what it does that makes it so bad? Psychological stress is associated with increased rates of depression and anxiety, heart disease, and infections. It may seem strange that stress can have such a dramatic impact on so many different body systems but there is one underlying factor all systems of the body share, the immune system.
The Immune System’s Role in Stress
The immune system functions to fight-off diseases but it also helps to restore and repair the body on a daily basis. The normal wear-and-tear on the body requires repair and it’s the immune system that makes this repair possible. In fact, this process has a name that I’m sure you’re very familiar with, inflammation. Contrary to popular belief, not all inflammation is bad. Think about the inflammation associated with an injury like a broken bone or sprained ankle, without the inflammatory process, usually visible as redness and swelling, and felt as pain and heat, the break or sprain would not heal. This kind of process goes on all the time in your body but on a much smaller scale, at a cell and molecular level, and promotes the healing of damage done by the normal process of living. It’s only when this inflammation doesn’t lead to repair and resolution that inflammation becomes a bad thing, often referred to as chronic inflammation. And this brings us back to stress.
Stress has a direct impact on your immune system and it’s ability to function properly. This includes keeping it from fighting-off foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses as well as completing the daily process of repair. During the normal repair process lots of damage is done before restoration and resolution can occur. Think of this like remodeling a portion of a house. Before you can replace the kitchen cabinets, the old ones have to be torn out. There’s lots of damage that gets done in the process of replacing these kitchen cabinets but if you allow the contractor to complete his/her job, your kitchen will be restored to a beautiful, functional state. But what happens if the contractor stops midway? You’re left with a dysfunctional kitchen that leads to other problems in the household. This is exactly what happens in your body all the time, and if something like stress interferes with the immune system’s normal function then you’re left with unresolved inflammation and lots of damage. Like the kitchen cabinet example, this unrepaired damage leaves a portion of your body in a dysfunctional state and left unchecked and unresolved it will ultimately manifest itself as disease.
Fortunately, our bodies are amazingly resilient and stress only becomes a problem when we engage in stressful behaviors in a chronic manner. Life is full of stressful events but the impact on our bodies and immune system can be mitigated by how we deal with stress. Interestingly, not all stress is created equal. Quick bursts of acute stress actually help activate and mobilize the immune system. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective where the fight-or-flight stress response helped us survive. A part of our survival depended upon the immune system helping to repair tissue and fight off infection after we were bitten by the saber-toothed cat that triggered the fight or flight response to start with. What creates issues in modern day humans is our continued worry over events past or present, or worry about future events. This habitual stress leads to immune dysfunction and chronic inflammation.
The Good News
Here’s the good news, you can offset the negative effects of stress simply by the way in which you perceive and cope with stressful events in your life. Learn to let it go! The longer you hold on to stress the more it impairs your immune system’s ability to repair your body. There’s no one way for everyone when it comes to coping with stress but there are many tried and true methods you can try-out. Things like exercise, mindfulness meditation, and being socially connected all help reduce stress, so does having a pet and volunteering and giving to others. But be careful of activities that lead to numbing and avoidance rather than helping you let go of the stress. Plopping down in front of the TV and binge watching your favorite show to “take your mind off of things” is only going to make it worse by prolonging the stress. So the next time you find yourself in a stressful situation that seems to be lasting, do your best to remember to let it go; try a walk, take a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course, do some yoga, get together with some compassionate friends or family members or join a group to help talk through your concerns. Your body will thank you.
Until next time, stay well!
Dr. Tobi Schmidt, Ph.D.