How stress affects your immune system

Knowing how to balance stress can also boost your immune system.

Stress not only comes in many forms, but also affects us in a variety of ways. Whether it is deadlines from work forcing us to skip lunch or pulling an all-nighter trying to finish a college paper, pressure never seems to take a break.

While those examples are the more general consequences of stress, one of the lesser discussed symptoms of stress is an unhealthy immune system. This can not only result in feeling under the weather, but can turn you into a coughing and sneezing fest on top of an already  intense boardroom meeting. Keeping your immune system happy is essential to controlling stress levels, so here is an overview of how stress affects the immune system, plus some tips to combat against feeling both sick and anxious:

Understanding stress
When posed with a situation that inflicts stress, our bodies go through what is commonly referred to as the "fight or flight" response. Adrenaline kicks through the body and activates a stress hormone called corticosteroids that can reduce the immune system's ability to effectively fight off unwanted bacteria and antigens. Stress doesn't simply go away easily. A strenuous event such as a car accident or mounting pressure from a boss tends to stick within our minds, leading us to constantly think about it, which in turn produces more and more corticosteroids.

Every time you conjure up more feelings of stress, your immune system is thrown through a limbo, leaving you susceptible to illness. Researchers from Ohio State University have also found that our moods are often influenced by our immune cells' reactions that occur when our brains signal stress. Using mice, the doctors found that repeated exposure to stress can produce the highest concentrations of immune cells traveling to the brain, which not only leaves the immune system more vulnerable to infection, but also force the cells to infiltrate areas of the brain linked to anxiety and fear, therefore inducing even more stress.

In another study conducted by researchers from Ohio State University, professors found that loneliness and isolation, in addition to chronic stress, can harm overall immune system health. After analyzing blood samples from people prone toward loneliness against those more socially active, the researchers discovered that the lonely test subjects had higher levels of inflammation-related proteins, which can regularly cause problems for immune systems.

Lisa Jaremka, a professor at Ohio State University and lead author of the study, said her team's research signals a clear connection between stress and poor immune health.

"It is clear from previous research that poor-quality relationships are linked to a number of health problems," Jaremka said in a statement. "The same processes involved in stress and reactivation of these viruses is probably also relevant to the loneliness findings. Loneliness has been thought of in many ways as a chronic stressor – a socially painful situation that can last for quite a long time."

Coping with stress
An important way to help ease the tension in your life and simultaneously boost your immune system is by learning how to recognize and handle stress factors. A few tips to help you alleviate stress include:

  • Identify what is building pressure on your life.
  • Understand what stressors you can and can't control.
  • Eliminate unnecessary stress by avoiding people or environments that provoke tension.
  • Express your feelings through writing or conversation with someone close instead of bottling your emotions.
  • Focus on the positive and adjust your goals and standards accordingly.
  • Find the time to do an activity you enjoy every day.  

These are just a few ways to learn how to cope with stress. Being able to combine a number of these guidelines to your everyday life can put your mind at ease, but keep your immune system healthy.

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