October 26, 2020

Boost Your Immunity With Stress Management

General Health

Welcome to Week 5 of our Rock the Walk 2020 Challenge! We’re all about boosting your immunity during this year’s challenge. For this fifth week of our wellness challenge, we’re focusing on STRESS MANAGEMENT and its effects on immunity.

Sometimes, a little stress can do wonders. It can wake you up, sharpen your senses and get your blood pumping. That’s because when something is stressful, your body is programmed to give you an extra boost to help you handle the situation. You’ve probably heard it called “fight-or-flight.”

Stress happens when a situation pushes you beyond your ability to cope with it. When there is a stressful event, or “stressor,” your body reacts with physiological changes, which we’ll call the stress response. Many, many years ago, that stressor might have been a bear running after you. Today, that stressor could be a final exam or bursting water pipe. Your body’s stress response kicks you into high gear to respond to the immediate danger.

What is the stress response?

Let’s take a moment to appreciate how amazing the human body is. When you experience a stressor, a whole chain of events occurs before you even realize that the situation is stressful. It’s a complex series of events that prompts your body to release a surge of hormones that make physiological changes, including:

  1. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, pushing blood to your muscles, heart and other organs, preparing you to fight (or flee).
  2. Blood sugar and fat is released from temporary storage sites to give you more energy.
  3. You start to breathe faster and take in more oxygen. That extra oxygen makes you more alert and sharpens your senses.
  4. Your pupils dilate, so you take in more light, allowing you to see better.
  5. Your feeling of pain is dulled so that you can do what you need to do.
  6. Your body redirects resources so that you can spend more energy on processes you need to survive and less energy on things like digestion, tissue repair and immune functions.

The important part of the stress response is that after the stressful event is over, your body recuperates. It’s supposed to be a cycle. After the stressor is gone, your hormone levels return to normal and your body gets back to doing what it needs to do- digesting lunch, fighting viruses, etc. When this is your stress response cycle, stress works like it’s supposed to, and it can even be good for you!

What happens when the stress response just keeps happening?

The problem is that stressors today look a lot different than they did when we lived in caves. While short-term stress might be good, long-term stress is definitely not. And, we seem to have more stressors around us than we used to. In fact, 2020 has been an extreme example of modern-day stress with a pandemic, record unemployment, school and business closures and more.

If that one stressful event never goes away, or if you experience one stressor after another, stress hormones continue to flood your system. When that happens for a long period of time:

  • Your heart rate and blood pressure can stay high
  • Inflammation increases
  • Your appetite can increase, leading to weight gain and fatty tissue build-up around your organs
  • Your blood sugar could continue to be elevated
  • Your blood vessels and arteries can become damaged

Any or all of these conditions can lead to illness and disease.

What about chronic stress and the immune system?

When it comes to your immune system, chronic stress is a problem on multiple levels.

  • The presence of stress hormones signals your body to direct resources away from your immune system. One way that happens is with lymphocytes, the white blood cells that help fight infections. As resources are directed away from the immune system, lymphocyte production decreases, putting you more at risk for infection from viruses.
  • Chronic levels of increased stress hormones can increase your body’s inflammatory response. When inflammation is on-going, it can wear down the immune system and make it less effective overall.
  • Stress also interrupts other functions that boost your immune system.
    • Sleep: Chronic stress can make sleeping more difficult. And, poor sleep impairs your immune system.
    • Nutrition: The stress response slows digestion, which can keep infection-fighting nutrients (like zinc) from being available as quickly for your body to use.
    • Mental Health: Chronic stress can lead to depression and anxiety, which have been shown to increase levels of inflammation.

Think about your car engine running in 1st gear at 55 miles an hour. It might be capable of doing that, but the engine will not like it or be able to do that for long. Chronic stress wears down your immune system.

How can you eliminate stress in your life?

You can’t! We all have stressors in our lives. So what can we do about chronic stress? Believe it or not, we can train ourselves to manage the impact that stress has on us. By doing so, we keep our immune system (and other systems) running strong, efficiently fighting viruses and colds.

When it comes to managing your stress response, the more tools you have in your toolbox, the better. Your goal isn’t to avoid stressors but to have ways to complete the stress cycle so that the stress response “turns off” and your body returns to normal.

Think about stress management from two perspectives: 1) Managing stress as it happens and 2) Increasing your overall capacity to handle stress so that fewer things elicit a stress response.

Managing stress as it happens*

When something stressful happens, your body wants you to be ready to take action. Here are a few things you can do at that moment to help your body complete the stress cycle.

  • Go for a walk. Being physically active can help manage some of the extra energy.
  • Get some fresh air. Nature has been shown to shift your perspective and bring a calming effect.
  • Talk with friends or family. Talking about the situation can provide emotional relief and can often give a new perspective that helps the situation feel less stressful.
  • Laugh. If you can’t laugh about your situation, find something else to laugh about. Laughing will help you be more positive and can help your brain see the situation as less of a threat.
  • Take deep breaths. Focusing on your breath can actually trigger your body’s relaxation response.

Increasing your capacity

When you’re not in the midst of a stressful situation, take opportunities to create a relaxing environment, a healthy body, and a positive mindset so that you have a greater capacity to handle stressors when they arise.

  • Eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise, and be sure to get plenty of sleep. Feeling healthy and rested will give you more strength to handle life stressors.
  • Take time for hobbies. Read a book, do a puzzle, listen to music. Taking opportunities to relax and do something nice for yourself will help you have a positive outlook and renewed energy.
  • Build healthy relationships. Having positive relationships to draw from will help you feel more empowered to handle the things that come your way.
  • Try yoga. Yoga is said to calm your nervous system and reduce inflammation. If you’d like to try yoga, Fort HealthCare has a digital yoga class starting soon! It’s a great opportunity to see if yoga is something you enjoy.
  • Try meditation. Research has shown that mindfulness and meditation training can alter your brain chemistry. People who meditate regularly have been shown to produce lower levels of cortisol in response to stress, resulting in a lower inflammatory response. That means that meditation can alter how your body responds to stress.
  • Talk to a professional counselor or therapist. Working with a mental health professional, you can identify sources of stress and learn new coping skills to help.

Managing stress doesn’t mean stopping stress from happening. It doesn’t mean stopping your body from experiencing stress. It means that when your body has a stress response to something, you have ways to relax and turn off the stress response before it turns into chronic stress.

Learning to manage your stress is a great way to give your immune system a boost this winter. Stress is known to increase our vulnerability to illnesses, especially viruses and colds. When you learn to manage stress, you allow your immune system to get back to work doing what it does best.

* Be sure to call 911 if you have chest pain, especially if you also have shortness of breath, pain radiating into your shoulder and arm, jaw or back pain, sweating, dizziness, or nausea. Your stress may actually be a heart attack.