Stress – and its effect on our Immune System

Stress – and its effect on our Immune System

21st of November, 2019

Most of us get stressed.  It’s a natural biological and psychological response that we experience when we encounter a threat that we feel we do not have the resources to deal with.

Firstly, our body judges a situation and decides whether it is stressful. This decision is made based on sensory input and processing (the things we see and hear in the situation) and on stored memories (what happened the last time we were in a similar situation).

If the situation is judged as being stressful our stress response is activated. This is known as our ‘Fight, Flight or Faint Response’.

This is a primal response; our bodies react as if we are in danger – as all mammals do.

The release of hormones under this response allows us to take in more oxygen as our lungs dilate, our heart rate and blood pressure increases, digestion switches off as not crucial and our immune system is suppressed.

Once the ‘threat’ is over part of our nervous system (the parasympathetic nervous system) takes control and brings the body back into a balanced state.

No ill effects are experienced from the short-term response to stress.

But ongoing stress, as can happen in modern day life, makes us susceptible to illness and disease because the response that gets us ready for emergency situations also severely depresses our immunity at the same time.

Stressors are no longer wild animals or the danger of invading tribes.  The threat can come from exams, taking a driving test, divorce, death of loved one, moving to a new house, loss of job, comparing yourself to others, a hectic life and lots of other overwhelming experiences.

Add to this that the effects of stress are cumulative; so even ordinary, day-to-day activities can eventually lead to more serious health issues. It’s important therefore to be aware of the simple daily stress in our lives.

The first step is to recognize signs of too much stress such as changes in sleep, changes in our appetite, increased irritability and anxiety. Once recognized steps can be taken to mitigate it, with the aim being to short-circuit our body’s responses to stress.

We cannot change what is happening around us – but we can change our response.

(I’m going to list below a few methods of relieving stress and bringing your nervous system back into balance.  But firstly, if you have recently gone through a traumatic event such as losing a loved one, a divorce or any type of relationship break-up – be gentle to yourself.   Allow your mind and body to respond naturally for a few months and in the meantime eat healthily, sleep, be with friends and family and exercise.   Time is a great healer and our mind and bodies can deal with these if we allow them to.  Occasionally people have trouble moving on, even years after the event – it is at this point that some therapy may be required in order to live life to its fullest).

Here are a few easy but effective strategies that we can employ when the going gets tough, to boost our mood and support our immune system:

 – Relaxation exercises. The link between the mind and body can be strengthened by specific relaxation exercises such as meditation and guided imagery. Meditation can work wonders for clearing the mind of clutter and helping to regulate our emotional temperature. Employ such techniques throughout the day. It doesn’t have to be a laborious task; even taking a few moments to close our eyes and breathe deeply can shut down our body’s cortisol and adrenaline releases.

As part of my work with clients I provide simple exercises that can be done to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and induce a state of calm.  A search on the web or an app store can also provide lots of techniques to help  master our current emotional states.

– Behaviour modification techniques. Changing how we act can often break habits that trigger stress reactions, this can be done through many therapies, including hypnotherapy.

– Social support. According to researchers, people with strong social support have better overall health and are more resistant to infection and disease.

–  Stop Negative self-talk.  We can be aware of this little voice and make the conscious effort to counter it with positive thoughts. The more we can do this, the less prevalent that malicious little voice will be.

– Work on our relationships. Poor relationships can be damaging to our mental health. Focus on fostering and enjoying healthy relationships.

– Enjoy ourselves.  We can do things we derive pleasure from. Seeing a movie, having coffee or lunch with a friend, listen to music. In other words, fool our nervous system into taking a few hours’ break from the burdens we have inadvertently placed it under.

The ability to fend off illness and disease depends on several factors, some of which are beyond our control, but the way we react to stress and the general health of our immune system are things we can influence.

“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, not to worry about the future, or not to anticipate troubles, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.”

 Siddartha Guatama Buddha