The Impact of Stress on Your Immune SystemWhen you are met with stressful situations, your body protects you by entering into the fight-or-flight mode. During this mode, your sympathetic nervous system is activated, which causes your heart rate and blood pressure to increase, your muscles to constrict, and your digestion to take a break. In this state, the body releases cortisol, adrenaline, noradrenaline, and a host of hormones that may decrease white blood cells. This process helps you fight or flee from any dangers that you’re encountering. However, at the same time, you can suffer if you stay in that mode for too long, or if you are constantly in and out of fight-or-flight mode.
From 1982 to 1992, psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Ph.D., and immunologist Ronald Glaser, Ph.D., studied the role of stress on medical students. They discovered that students’ immunity was compromised during testing and examination times. They had fewer natural killer cells that are responsible for fighting tumors and viruses. Additionally, they stopped producing immunity-boosting gamma interferon. Their T-cells had a weak response to test-tube stimulation.
Stress not only impacts the numbers of white blood cells in circulation and the quantity of antibodies in the blood, but it is also associated with changes in the functioning of immune cells. People who have undergone stressful periods have a relatively large decrease in both lymphocyte proliferation and natural killer cell activity. The longer the period of stress, the greater decrease in the number of specific types of white blood cells.
Other functions of the body are also compromised under mental and emotional disturbances. A study by Yale found that the brain shrinks under chronic stress. Researchers examined tissues from both people that were and were not depressed. They found that those who were depressed had fewer expressions of genes that were necessary for proper brain functioning. Lastly, stress can be a trigger for inflammation. Chronic inflammation leads your immune system to attack itself out of confusion. This may result in autoimmune conditions, obesity, mood disorders, and chronic fatigue syndrome among other conditions.
The point of this information is not to set an expectation of never encountering stress, but rather to explore how you can practically recover from it. Ideally, you want the body to elicit the relaxation response every time it is recovering from a stressful scenario. It is normal and inevitable for you to experience fear, worry, anger. At the same time, it serves you deeply to acknowledge that you can process these emotions for your mental, emotional, and physical well-being. You can elicit the relaxation response and move from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system.
The following are some ways for you to regulate your nervous system.
1. Explore Moderate-to-Intense Forms of MovementYou can try jogging, intuitive dancing, or jumping on a trampoline. There are also meditative forms of movement such as yoga, tai chi, or qi gong. Endless courses are available online, but you may want to join a group that meets in-person to increase your feelings of connection.
2. Introduce an Electronic SabbathYour nervous system becomes overstimulated from notifications and multitasking. Aim to put your phone away at least an hour before bedtime, and perhaps for 2-3 hours during the day.
3. Seek Sunshine and NatureThe outdoors offers you healing through serotonin-producing sunshine, mineral-rich soil, and oxygen-producing plants. Low levels of serotonin can affect your mood and is associated with depression. In fact, studies attribute the relationship between psychiatric symptoms and seasonal variations in sunlight to changes in serotonin levels.
Another study found that spending time in a forest led to decreases in blood pressure, serum cortisol levels, and urinary adrenaline.
4. Spend Time with Pets and Loved OnesRelationships with pets and loved ones can help you experience the most beautiful aspects of being human—love, joy, and fulfillment. It’s tricky to find the time, but with intention, you can carve out space for those who matter.
5. Explore Activities that Make You Lose Track of TimeThis can be activities such as reading, painting, or watching a movie. Excuse yourself from your to-do list, and let yourself spend some time without an agenda.
6. SocializeConsider starting a book club, spiritual group study, or game night. Keep in touch with old friends and develop new relationships with people who share similar interests as you.
7. Develop Your Spiritual PracticeMeditation, Reiki healing, journaling, and prayer are tools to connect with the love and light that is your truest essence. With consistency, you will build a reserve of faith and hope.
For your optimal health, the quality of your mental and emotional state is as important as your physical well-being. Your immune system’s vitality largely depends on the functioning of the nervous and endocrine systems. While various studies demonstrate the effects of stress on white blood cells, the adrenal glands, hormones, and brain function, you do have the ability to move out of the fight-or-flight response. Lifestyle shifts, from exercise to spending time with others, can help you navigate stress with more ease in mind and body.
Discover additional practices for regulating your nervous system in Deepak Chopra's program: 7-Days to Relieve Stress & Anxiety, available now in the Chopra App.