How Stress Affects the Immune System
Using mind-body therapies to keep stress from making us sick.
Posted Nov 12, 2014
“Mind over matter” is not simply a catchphrase. It is a truth based on what we know to be fact: that the brain, given the right set of directions, the right environment, and the proper stimuli, will always choose healing over disease.
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. If we’re not able to change our response to stressors, we’ll find ourselves in a constant hormonal battle that will lead to serious health issues like hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. The brain and the immune system are in constant communication in this delicate balance that can be disrupted by any kind of physical or emotional stress.
Ongoing stress makes us susceptible to illness and disease because the brain sends defense signals to the endocrine system, which then releases an array of hormones that not only gets us ready for emergency situations but severely depresses our immunity at the same time. Some experts claim that stress is responsible for as much as 90% of all illnesses and diseases, including cancer and heart disease. The way it does this is by triggering chemical reactions and flooding the body with cortisol that, among other things, decreases inflammation, decreases white blood cells and NK cells (special cells that kill cancer), increases tumor development and growth, and increases the rate of infection and tissue damage.
Because the effects of stress are cumulative, even ordinary, day-to-day activities can eventually lead to more serious health issues. So it’s important to be aware of the simple daily stress in our lives. Some of the mind-body therapies that help reverse that are:
- Relaxation exercises. The link between the mind and body can be strengthened by specific relaxation exercises such as meditation and guided imagery. By making them a normal part of our lives, they become a buffer that guards against the breakdown of organ systems.
- Positive thinking. Evidence shows that people who believe they are doing better actually do better than those who have the same physical condition but aren’t as positive. Research also suggests that anxiety, hostility, and other negative states affect the immune system.
- Behavior modification techniques. Changing how we act can often break habits that trigger stress reactions.
- Social support. According to researchers, people with strong social support have better overall health and are more resistant to infection and disease.
The relationship between stress and illness is not a simple one, but there is a connection. Because the endocrine and immune systems are so interrelated, disruption to one due to physical or emotional stress typically causes damage to the other. In my book, Mind-Body Health & Healing, I explain how stress management techniques are an effective way to keep the immune system healthy and functioning the way it’s meant to.