Stress and the Immune System

by Jordan Ciambrone | July 14, 2020, 09:59 AM

For an added challenge on the last mountain run, I offered my friends a generous head start. Half way through the run, a text comes in, “there is a bear near the trail, be careful.” 

I think, “Shoot.  I’ve never had a close encounter with a bear, what am I going to do?” 

I remove my headphones, stay “bear aware” and coach myself through the moment. “Don't panic yet, maybe it will be gone by the time I get there.”  Nope. There he is. I freeze. “Shoot. What do I do? He is right there.” 

Still frozen, staring at the happy bear grooming itself, the wind blows. He lifts his head, and I think, "Oh no! He smelled me and my snacks." I start back tracking, then stand there like a statue… for 20 minutes… (Feel free to poke fun at this recovering city slicker).

This type of acute stress response is primitive and is designed to keep us safe from lions and tigers and bears. Health problems arise when an acute stress response turns chronic, and stress hormones are not used to take action. 

Harmful Effects of Chronic Stress 

Chronic stress can stem from various sources. Even the mere perception of physical or psychosocial threats (like an uncertain future due to a global pandemic) can have harmful effects. These effects can be prolonged through “anticipatory stress,” activated through memories, emotions,or thoughts. Here are a few ways chronic stress manifests:

  • Physically: Frequent illness and inflammation
  • Mentally: Poor concentration decision making
  • Emotionally: Irritability, anger, nervousness depression, overwhelm
  • Behaviorally: Unhealthy coping with food, sleep, drugs or alcohol

Not all stress is immunosuppressive. However, chronic stress, real or imagined, does compromise the immune system. When defending the body-mind from noxious invaders, the nervous and immune systems coordinate a cascade of electro-chemical events to prevent (or allow) injury or infection. 

Stress hormones enhance inflammation and exert major suppressive effects on the immune system. Research also suggests that stress hormones actively withdraw the parasympathetic nervous system1, the part of the nervous system that kicks on the “rest and digest '' response. This “decreased vagal tone” has been associated with increased inflammatory markers. 

How to Stay Healthy

Become a coping rockstar!
Start with a list or two:

  1. Identify what daily behaviors promote a “fight or flight” response in body or mind. 
  2. Identify behaviors that promote a “rest and digest” response in body or mind. 

Remember, what may be relaxing for some, could be overstimulating for others. Balance is the name of the game. What could be relaxing for your mind, could be taxing for your body. Take a moment to listen to what you truly need, and nourish yourself accordingly. You’re worth it! 


kids playing ball

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