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Stress Weakens the Immune System

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Acute Stress Disorder » Featured Article

By Dr. Eva Witkowska

Dr. Eva Witkowska

Health research shows that prolonged stress has a detrimental effect on our health. Prolonged stress makes you more susceptible to illness, and once you are sick it will take longer to heal. Stress will make you age faster. Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, and Gregory Miller, PhD reported findings from 300 empirical studies describing the relationship between psychological stress and the immune system. They found that acute and prolonged stressors weaken the immune system on both the cellular and hormonal level.

There are two components to stress: external and internal stress. External stress can be a complicated situation, conflict at work or with a loved one, sickness in the family, increased responsibilities at work, conflicting schedules. The external stressors cause internal stress, such as stressful thoughts, feelings of worry and anxiety, irritation or bursts of anger. We think faster, our thoughts become more demanding, and we react faster and faster until we experience chronic stress/burnout. As long as we are caught in patterns of reactivity to stressful situations we will strain our bodies and our immune systems.

It is helpful not to let an external stressful situation dictate your internal processes. I know it is much easier said than done, but there is a body of research showing that paying attention to your own physiological and thinking processes can break the stress feedback loop. The loop starts with a stressful situation followed by stressful accelerating thought patterns which lead us to reacting instead of problem solving. Then we find ourselves with no time to take care of ourselves through exercise, sleep or proper nutrition, and we end up feeling burned out and overwhelmed.

This is why it is important to follow your own 'thought hygiene':

  • Notice when your thoughts start racing. It often occurs first thing in the morning.

  • Incorporate de-stressing practices into your everyday life.

  • Do not wait for circumstances to change.

  • Start by checking in with your body and mind through meditation, taking leisurely walks in nature, yoga or other mindful exercise.

  • Devote yourself to one practice a day that is fully connected with your body and all your senses.

Even setting aside time to eat an apple slowly, first looking at it, paying attention to its shape, colour and weight, is a good way to start. Then smell it, feel its surface with your fingers, or lick it with your tongue if you are so inclined. Then bite into your apple slowly, tasting its taste, noticing how hard or soft the flesh is, how sweet or tart the juice. Chew the piece slowly, continuously focusing on its texture and taste and how it feels when you swallow and nurture your body with this wonderful food.

The stressful thoughts will intrude but that is normal. Register them, yet gently return your mind to experiencing all the details of your moment with the apple. In time, this simple exercise will help develop the ability to keep your mind calmer and better focused on what needs to be done.  It will minimize the reactivity and reduce the internal stress and in this way help to protect your immune system.

About the Author...

Dr. Eva is an Anger and Stress Management specialist at Chopra Yoga Centre in Toronto, Ontario.

Last Update: 5/21/2015

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