Let’s Talk: Stress & the Immune System
Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Research has shown that your emotional health is intricately linked to your immune system. Psychological challenges are capable of modifying various features of the immune response.

When stress, anxiety, worry, overwhelm, depression and isolation are left unaddressed they actually reduce the effectiveness of your immune system and make you, and those around you much more susceptible to getting sick.

Lab studies showed that stress of any significant duration - from a few days to a few months or years (long term or chronic stress) – caused all aspects of immunity went downhill, while stressful events also reliably associated with changes in the immune system .

What does stress do to the immune system?

Cortisol is the main stress hormone. Low-grade “cortisol baths” are the biggest threat to the immune system. These “baths” are small increases of cortisol all day long and tend to be due to a stress-dominated thought process.

We have on average between 60,000 and 80,000 thoughts a day, the majority of them repetitive as well as negative. Add this to the fact that your brain cannot tell the difference between what you imagine or worry about and what is actually real. As a result, these panicked and negative thoughts can wreak havoc on your immune system and increase your risk of becoming sick.

Can this affect children?

Children may be especially prone to long term damage to their immune systems through something called early life stress. Children exposed to early life stress have shown long-term compromised immune systems.

Children are also particularly sensitive to picking up the stress and anxiety of the adults around them. In terms of our children’s early life stress, we need to learn to be calm and promote a stress-free environment for them.

What can I do?

Managing stress, especially chronic or long-term stress (even if it's not intense), may help people to fight off disease and illness.

We can adopt tools and practices to enhance, improve and protect our emotional health and the emotional health of those around us. This can include learning to calm any intense emotions as they arise and engaging in daily practices and habits that transform your emotional system as a whole.

The following practices can help you calm your intense emotions when they arise, reducing your cortisol (stress hormone) increase and calming your system over-all:

1. The Power of Pause

This practice encourages you to respond differently in the moment of reactivity. When you recognise a destabilising emotion (such as fear or worry) is taking over your system, you can consciously disengage from this takeover, pause and observe your reaction from an onlooker’s point of view - without suppressing it, judging or engaging with it.

Take a couple of intentional and slow breaths to calm any physiological reactions that may be occurring. From this more grounded space, you will be better able to ascertain an appropriate response to the immediate circumstance. 

2. Present moment awareness

In this practice, you ground your attention in the present moment and your external surroundings. Doing this takes your mind off your escalating thoughts and starts to calm your whole mind/body complex.

Firstly, you must recognise and disengage from the reaction you are having due to whatever it may be that has triggered that reaction. To begin this process – relax the muscles around the eyes and shoulders. These muscles are directly connected to your emotional response system.

Next, take some deep, slow breaths. Then pause and try to really take notice and become aware of your senses – what you can see around you, the colours, sounds, smells and details – making you fully present in that moment.

Using this tactic to immerse yourself and your senses in your surroundings that calms the emotional attack and brings you back to a grounded ‘now’. Calm your children by teaching them these self-calming tools too, and by spending time together as a family.

Information from Psychology Today, APA and NCBI.