The immune system is an intricate system of cells and systems designed to protect and guard the body from potential harmful organisms and situations. Without the immune system humans would struggle to fight infection, illness, and disease (Abbas & Lichtman, 2014). The immune system not only keeps us safe from illness but the immune system also protects the body from psychological stressors.
A major biological function of the immune system involves blood and the chemical in cells, known as antibodies. These antibodies are able to identify and attack dangerous organism that come in contact with the body (Abbas & Lichtman, 2014). The immune system consists of body fluids, hormones, chemicals, and cells that fight off illness. Medical science uses medicine to improve this system of the body and help protect the immune system from dangerous diseases. However it is harder to protect the body from behavioral health and psychological illness. Stress compromises the immune system and leave people vulnerable to not only emotional upset, but to illness, fatigue, and adverse health.
Stress, although a psychological stressor, also stresses the immune system. The same fluids, cells, and chemicals in the body that protect against disease are negatively impacted by stress (McKinnon, Weisse, Reynolds, Bowles, & Baum, 1989). Research suggests that increased stress decreases immunity. Stress decreased immune functioning even when medical treatment was used to improve how the immune system operated (Stanojevic, Dimitrijevic, Kovacevic-Jovanovic, Miletic, Vujic, & Radulovic, 2003). Stress is responsible for decreasing the resources needed to keep the body well, refreshed, and working properly.
Stress has the potential to prevent the body from being able to adequately protect against illness and disease. Stress has the potential to decrease the body’s ability to burn fat, metabolize food, and recover from physical activity.
Research suggests that decreasing stress will improve health, fitness, and wellness. Behavioral practices such as relaxation, mediation, exercise, and self-reflection can reduce stress (Kiecolt-Glaser & Glaser, 1992; Levy, Williams, & Henderson, 2001). We have the ability to feel better and control our physical health and wellness.
Often times feeling tired, worn out, stressed, and sick can cause a person to feel powerless. However learning to manage stress and decrease levels of stress can help individuals improve health and wellness. An interesting research study found that relaxation not only reduced stress but also increased immune system functioning. Learning to manage stress is a skill that requires practice. We encounter stressors every day, therefore it takes daily stress reduction practices to to keep the body from experiencing the harmful effects of stress.
Physical symptoms of stress:
muscle soreness (mainly in the back)
changes in appetite – either increased appetite or decreased appetite
changes in sleep – hypersomnia (sleeping too much) or insomnia (not sleeping enough)
cold symptoms (runny nose, cough, etc)
heart rate increases
difficulty breathing – shallow breathing or feeling like not getting enough air
These symptoms can also indicate health conditions but evaluating events in your life can cue you to whether stress may be upsetting you. Also the following emotional symptoms can indicate stress is complicating your life.
diffiulty managing emotions – mood swings
difficulty concentrating and difficulty focusing
difficulty staying on task
racing thoughts – a lot of thoughts going through your head at one time
feeling like something bad is about to happen
These emotional and physical symptoms are uncomfortable and often times people take extreme measures to reduce the discomfort. People will overeat, sleep in, avoid people, places, and things, neglect responsibility, and stop enjoying activities. People will increase use of over-the-counter medication, use of illicit substances, increase alcohol consumption, and stop working out and eating well. These things will only further decrease immunity and make it more difficult to manage stress.
Next time you think stress is the culprit for your emotional upset, physical upset, and lack of wellness try these things instead.
1. Go for a walk
2. Call a friend
3. Watch favorite movie/show
4. Dance/sing/listen to music
5. Journal/Meditate/Engage in spiritual practices
6. Draw/paint/create something
7. Read a book/magazine
10. Spend time with close family and friends
Doing 1 or more of these things daily will help keep stress at bay, but during of increased stress engaging in all these behaviors will help reduce stress. Start at the top of the list, and work your way down. If you still feeling stressed when you reach the end, start at the top again. These things will only make you feel good, improve yourself and your situation, reduce stress, and improve wellness.
*There are times in life when things are extremely overwhelming and it can be difficult to overcome. During these times it can be helpful to increase support and to reach out for help. Cntact a therapist for help. As a Licensed Professional Counselor and Health Psychologist, Stephanie is here to help. Please contact Stephanie if you feel need additional help overcoming stress.