Don’t stress out your immune system!

Now more than ever, stress is a factor for most of us. Dare I say it’s affecting ALL of us. Whether you click every article about current events or ignore the bulk of media, it’s likely that you feel it. A chronic, heavy, almost unnameable tension that exists. There is an invisible enemy and the information about it is complicated and ever changing. 

What we are experiencing now is called chronic stress. Perhaps your life had stressful times in the past, or you lived in a different form of chronic stress from daily life, work obligations, strained relationships or family issues. Today’s stress from the current pandemic can feel like it is compounding what was already difficult. Or it might feel motivating, encouraging you to make big changes since the world is upside down anyways. Quite possibly it could be a rollercoaster ride between these two states. Everyone has their own unique reality and response to this difficult time. 

How chronic stress affects our immune system

Chronic stress has been shown to decrease the effectiveness of our immune system and our immune response is a determining factor in how well we respond to infection (1). Our gut is also affected by stress, the more chronic stress we are under the greater the damage to the lining of our intestines (2). Why does our gut matter? It’s estimated that 70% of our immune system lives in our gut. It’s in our best interest to keep that lining intact!

Okay, it’s pretty clear that stress can have a negative impact but don’t despair! There is a LOT we can do to mitigate our stress, even in times like these. Let’s acknowledge that there is a collective grief right now, about what has changed and about what may be different in the foreseeable future. It’s a good thing to acknowledge how we feel and not try to make those feelings go away. In order to move forward, we have to accept what is happening and how we feel about it, both negative and positive. 

How to reduce stress

To help reduce stress, and therefore support immune function, there are a number of things we can do. Research has shown that there is a positive immune response to singing, music, breathing and meditation (1). So sing in the shower, listen to feel good music, take some deep breaths and focus on the positive for a few minutes. These simple things really add up when done consistently.

Control what you let in

Another way to reduce negative stress is to carefully monitor what causes you to feel anxious or stressed. For many of us, being constantly connected to social media or the news provokes anxiety – if this is you, make an effort to stop scrolling and watching the news. If you want to stay current, pick one or two times per day to look at credible news sources, this frees up your focus for more positive things. It’s also wonderful to seek out the good news – especially when it’s delivered by John Krasinski! Hopefully these strategies provide a starting place for you to combat the chronic stress we are all feeling. 

And if you want to learn more about the science of happiness, check out The Happiness Lab podcast by Dr. Laurie Santos. As a professor of Psychology and the head of Silliman College at Yale, she is an “expert on human cognition and the cognitive biases that impede better choices”. Basically she understands the thinking process and what’s stopping us from choosing the better things in life (at least that’s my loose interpretation). The podcast also includes bonus episodes specifically addressing the coronavirus and its effects on our happiness. Click here to learn more:

  1. Lateef, Abdurachman, and Netty Herawati. “The Role Of Psychological Well-Being In Boosting Immune Response: An Optimal Effort For Tackling Infection.” African Journal of Infectious Diseases, vol. 12, no. 1S, 7 Mar. 2018, pp. 54–61., doi:10.21010/ajid.v12i1s.7.
  2. Pathophysiological Mechanisms of Stress-Induced Intestinal Damage Mélanie G. Gareau† , Manuel A. Silva and Mary H. Perdue* 


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