Feeling Anxious? How Stress Weakens Your Immune System and What You Can Do About it
Category: Healthy Living
Posted on October 3, 2020
Vanessa is a health writer and blogging expert. Her specialities are medicine, health and wellness. She is proud to call Vancouver, BC her home where she enjoys the ocean and mountains with her dog Mr. ChowChow.
Did you know that the number of Canadians with anxiety has increased this year from 5 percent to 20 percent?
There are plenty of reasons for this huge increase, including the Covid-19 pandemic and rise in unemployment, but it hasn't come as a surprise. For years, anxiety, stress, and other mental health issues have been on the rise.
But what a lot of people don't know is how anxiety and stress can affect physical health. In particular, they can have a large impact on your immune system, weakening your body's natural defenses and making you more prone to sickness.
To find out how stress weakens the immune system, read our complete guide.
What is Your Immune System?
Before getting into how stress and anxiety affect your immune system, let's take a look at what it is and why it's an essential part of your health.
Your immune system is your body's number one defense against bacteria and viruses. It's how your body protects you from sickness and helps you take on the world every day. Without an immune system, your life would be a whole lot worse!
A huge wealth of cells and organs make up your immune system, including white blood cells, your spleen, and your lymphatic system. Just like every part of your body, everything works in perfect harmony to protect you from sickness. But, when other areas of your body aren't working so well, it can have a knock-on effect on your immune system.
Good Stress and Bad Stress
At some point or another, we've all experienced stress. Your body needs stress to help you perform better under certain situations, like if you're in danger. It can help you become more efficient with your tasks and boost your memory, which definitely isn't bad!
In fact, you can even feel a type of stress when you're excited, known as eustress. Have you ever felt butterflies when you're about to go on a date or be reunited with someone? That's actually stress, but you wouldn't know it.
But there is a certain type of stress can become bad for your body; chronic stress.
Chronic Stress and Anxiety
Anxiety and chronic stress go hand in hand. Sufferers of anxiety often see increased levels of chronic stress.
Anxiety can be caused by a whole range of things, including past trauma, your personality, other mental health disorders, and alcohol or drug misuse. If you have blood relatives with anxiety, this can make you more likely to suffer from it, too. It can also be the sign of an underlying health condition, such as chronic pain or diabetes.
Some symptoms of anxiety include:
- Feeling nervous or in danger
- Increase in heart rate and rapid breathing
- Sweating and shaking
- Having trouble sleeping
As you can see, the symptoms of anxiety are quite similar to those we associate with stress. The two can be very similar and sufferers of anxiety usually have increased stress levels.
How Anxiety and Chronic Stress Weakens Your Immune System
If you're wondering how stress weakens the immune system, here's what you've been waiting for.
Anxiety and stress have a pretty complicated relationship with your body and, in particular, your immune system. When something triggers your anxiety or stress, your body releases multiple different hormones, such as cortisol. These are designed to help your body prepare for the threat it's perceiving, but they also start to suppress your immune system.
When you have chronic stress, your immune responses changed and your body becomes less effective in fighting off bacteria and viruses that enter your body. This was first discovered when animal studies linked increased levels of stress to higher rates of infection. In the 1980s, a new study began that looked at the effect of stress on medical students.
They found, between 1982 and 1992, that under the stress of the three-day exam period, their subjects had less natural killer cells, such as white blood cells, and their bodies almost completely stopped producing gamma interferon which boosts the immune system. They had less of a defense against viral infections and tumors. In short, their immune system had stopped functioning as it should.
After this study came many more, and the general pattern discovered was that as stress increased, the immune system went down. With chronic stress, this was just unsustainable. The immune system was suffering too much wear and tear which led to it being ravaged by the hormones that are designed to protect you.
If you have anxiety and suffer increased levels of stress regularly, it could be ruining your physical health.
How Cortisol Weakens the Immune Systems
Cortisol has been identified as the main culprit in a weakened immune system due to stress, but what is it actually doing?
During periods of intense stress and anxiety, your body becomes flooded with cortisol which tries to reduce inflammation that can be caused by antibodies. It also switches focus from your body's ability to prevent diseases it already knows to fight off any problems the same way. Whilst this is helpful in short bursts, prolonged cortisol in your body starts to become more of an issue.
Cortisol suppresses your white blood cells and T-cells, which your body needs to fight infections. Whilst stress and anxiety continue and your body keeps producing cortisol, these cells remain suppressed and your immune system becomes weakened.
Once you get sick, your body is going to have a much harder time fighting it off. This is the reason that people with stress and anxiety are more likely to be sick.
What Can You Do?
Luckily, there's a lot of stress and anxiety relief out there that could help you. Here are some coping methods you might find helpful.
If you suffer from anxiety, medication can help you cope with the symptoms and get back to normal life. Some different medications you can take for anxiety include:
If you're thinking of taking medication for anxiety, be sure to talk to trained pharmacists or a doctor. They can help you pick the right medication for you, monitor its effectiveness, and keep you on the right track.
Exercise can help you relieve anxiety and stress naturally. It releases chemicals in your brain that have a positive effect on your mood and health and can burn off the excess energy you have that can develop into stress and anxiety. It can also take your mind off of your worries, which is sometimes all you need to calm yourself down.
Exercise has also been shown to naturally boost the immune system. This can counteract the effects of cortisol and keep you healthy.
Whilst drinking more water and eating healthily won't cure your anxiety, it could help the symptoms. By keeping your body healthy you might find the side-effects of anxiety and stress becoming less intense. These are also two super important things to do if you want to improve your natural immunity, so keep a close eye on your diet in times of stress!
Meditation is well known for relieving anxiety and helping to relieve stress. This gentle exercise teaches you to focus on your breath and let thoughts come in and out of your head without having an impact. For sufferers of anxiety, this sort of control over your thoughts probably seems like a dream!
Of course, meditation isn't easy. You'll need to practice it for some time if you want to become an expert and you might think it's useless at the beginning. But, just keep going and you should start to see some of the many positive effects.
Some scents can help calm your mind and relieve anxiety. Aromatherapy is actually thought to activate receptors in your brain that are responsible for reducing feelings of anxiety, so give it a go! Try relaxing scents like lavender, sandalwood, and chamomile.
In recent years, journalling has been brought to the forefront of mental health treatments. By simply writing down your thoughts and feelings regularly, you might learn how to manage stress and anxiety and take back control of your life. Again, this won't cure you of generalized anxiety disorder, but it can go a long way to helping you manage it.
Know Your Triggers
Everyone has different triggers that cause flare-ups of stress or anxiety, from a stressful job to certain tasks, like driving. By knowing what triggers your anxiety, you can help reduce the amount you're exposed to the thing or action, helping keep your stress to a minimum. You can also start to work on coping mechanisms that will make these situations easier to manage, reducing the intensity of your reaction.
See a Trained Therapist
Anyone with a mental health illness should see a trained therapist. These are the people who are going to have the biggest impact on getting your illness under control and helping you get back in the driving wheel of your life. They can also teach you more about anxiety and chronic stress, helping you understand it and your reactions better.
Make sure you find a therapist you feel comfortable talking to openly. It's vital you feel comfortable with your therapist and their methods if you want to see success from your sessions. When you find the right one, they'll do wonders for helping with your stress and anxiety relief.
Other Effects of Anxiety and Stress on the Body
Now you know everything there is to know about anxiety and stress on the immune system, as well as coping mechanisms to help you deal with your emotions, it's time to look at other effects anxiety has on your body. If you weren't already sure you need to work on getting your anxiety under control, this should convince you!
Cortisol doesn't just weaken your immune system. It can also increase your hunger, making you eat more and gain weight. It throws your blood sugar levels out of whack and wrecks havoc with your metabolic system.
This can also increase your chances of diabetes, which definitely isn't good! Keep your body looking and working just as you like it by getting your anxiety under control.
If you've ever experienced anxiety, you'll know that it can have a big effect on your heart. From increasing your heart rate to causing uncomfortable and worrying palpitations, it isn't kind to your cardiovascular system. If you already suffer from heart disease, over time this could actually increase your risk of a coronary event.
Anxiety is well-known for causing stomach problems. From stomachaches to diarrhea, it really isn't pleasant when your stress turns it's attention to your tummy. If you've ever been nervous, you've probably experienced churning in your stomach, but stress and anxiety take it to a whole new level.
There may also be a connection between anxiety and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), which is a very unpleasant illness. To avoid stomach issues, try and focus on the methods above for reducing your anxiety.
Get the Help You Need
Knowing that stress weakens the immune systems, along with a whole hoard of other nasty physical side-effects, should be enough to encourage you to get the help you need. From looking at anxiety medication from Pricepro Pharmacy to taking a medication class, there are plenty of ways you can work on getting your emotions under control. Once you do, you can get back to living a life you love.
If you're interested in medication from Pricepro Pharmacy, be sure to check out our full range today.