Stress is one of the worst things for your body, making you tired, irritable, and even sick so it’s best to get ahead of it combat it when it does show up.
Let’s look into how stress can weaken your immune system and some ways you can reduce it.
When Stress Hormones Become a Bad Thing
The relationship between stress and your immune system is a complicated one.
While a little bit of stress (say right before an exam) can be a good thing, it can often snowball into a bigger problem.
The main stress hormone is called cortisol and cortisol’s function is to help your body manage inflammation.
So when you’re feeling stressed and your body is producing more cortisol, the hormone does its job very well by limiting your immune system’s inflammation response.
But this quickly becomes a bad thing if you’re under stress for long periods of time.
Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University says your immune cells get too used to the cortisol, so the hormone can’t do its job properly anymore. So instead of limiting inflammation, your cells allow it to get out of control.
This is especially bad when you have a virus or infection like the common cold.
Symptoms like a fever are actually a side effect of your immune system’s response to the virus.
Cohen’s first studies found being stressed makes it easier for you to get a cold and harder for you to recover.
With your body used to high levels of cortisol, your immune system can’t control the inflammation, so you feel worse all the time instead of getting better.
Short-Term vs. Long-Term Stress
Short-term stress that lasts less than an hour or 2 at most (working-out for example) helps your immune system in certain ways.
A study by Stanford University found when you experience this “good stress” it gives many of your immune system cells a healthy boost.
As a result, your body can make more mature dendritic cells, neutrophils, macrophages, and lymphocytes which is a good thing!
But long-term stress, which lasts for days, months, or even years, has the opposite effect and makes it so your immune system can’t regulate itself properly anymore and this is a very bad thing.
Stress Causers and How to Avoid Them
Preventing stress isn’t always easy, but it can be done!
Here are some tactics you can practice to reduce stress in a healthy way.
Awareness: Recognize What’s Causing Your Stress
Sometimes we go through life all tense and stressed out without even realizing why or how we got that way in the first place.
If you can become more mindful of everyday interactions and areas of conflict, you’ll have a better shot of tackling stress.
Here are some common areas that can put most of us on edge:
- Money (72% of Americans are stressed about money, according to the APA)
- Work (at least 40% of Americans are stressed out from it, according to the CDC)
- Personal relationships (whether romantic or social)
- Parenting (especially if your child is on the autism spectrum)
- Daily life (like being busy all the time)
- Your personality traits (How outgoing and social are you? Are you a bit of a perfectionist or very easy-going?)
Once you know the root cause, you can take steps to make a change.
This can be simple but not necessarily easy. For example, if your social calendar isn’t leaving you any time to decompress, then you can start saying “no” when socializing doesn’t serve you.
This might make you uneasy at first since the thought of disappointing others is stressful on its own, but the idea is make your well-being a priority.
However, a little “me time” isn’t as easy to come by for some, like anyone who has to work more than one job to make ends meet or parents who are never really off the clock.
In these circumstances, it’s key to work through some or all of the next few tips..
Avoid Stimulants Like Alcohol, Caffeine, and Nicotine
A nice glass of wine after a long day. A couple of beers to unwind. A quick smoke to step away.
Stimulants offer an escape, even coffee can become a crutch when you’re not treating a deeper issue.
Alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine conveniently leave out the first step of awareness we discussed.
Instead of facing stressors head on, alcohol and the like help you temporarily avoid what’s really going on.
On top of that, alcohol makes your body release more stress hormones and stops you from recovering properly.
Caffeine also gives you a cortisol bump, which is why it makes you feel more alert.
Smoking is a little more complicated. The nicotine increases your stress levels physically but psychologically, the ritual of lighting and smoking a cigarette can have a positive effect.
Some experts believe it has to do with your breathing pattern rather than the actual cigarette.
Instead of mentally counting on a drink or smoke as a reward, give yourself other healthy methods of relaxation as a treat, like a long walk or a few minutes to read without distractions.
The more you reduce your alcohol, cigarette, and caffeine intake, the better your body will feel.
Schedule Some Nap Time
Just like any healthy habit, getting enough rest takes discipline. It means turning off your favorite show early, setting down your phone way ahead of bedtime, and keeping a steady schedule every day (not just weekdays).
If getting seven or more hours of sleep a night isn’t immediately possible for you, you can try 20-30 minute napes here and there.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends taking short naps during the day to help you rest. Over time, you’ll be giving your immune system a boost just by sleeping more.
The Pzizz app is a great way to get a relaxing 20 minute power nap in throughout the day and it leaves you feeling calm and relaxed!
Work Out and Let Go
Regular, moderate exercise is great for overall wellness.
Harvard Health published a review explaining exercise helps your body get rid of stress hormones and produce more endorphins, which elevates your mood.
If cardio or weight lifting isn’t your thing, you can look into yoga or mindful meditation to reduce stress levels.
These practices can relax your muscles, calm your breathing, and improve your alignment which are all great ways to reduce stress.
Less stress and better health is possible but it’s up to you to make the small changes that can make a big difference.
My favorite ways to de-stress are yoga, jogging, or lying down on my bed for 20 minutes listening to the Pzizz app. What are yours?