Stress and Your Immune System During the Pandemic

Keeping our immune system strong has always been important. However, it has become critical in this age of a 2-year pandemic. While this pandemic appears to be winding down, who knows what might be waiting in the wings.

When we are stressed, our immune system’s ability to fight off antigens is reduced making us more susceptible to infection. How does this happen? The stress hormone, corticosteroid, works to suppress the immune system by lowering the number of lymphocytes. Corticosteroid  can also increase active immunosuppressive mechanisms, like regulatory T cells. Chronic stress  dysregulates immune function by increasing proinflammatory responses.

There is a big difference between chronic stress and short-term stress. Short-term stress is the  fight-or-flight response lasting minutes to hours. It is a response to an immediate threat. The healthy nervous system will self-regulate by reducing the effects of the fight-or-flight response  as soon as the immediate threat is gone. Research has shown the value of short-term stress as  a way of mobilizing bodily resources and stimulating immune activity. One particular set of studies done at Stanford University School of Medicine by Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar tracked the paths of key immune cells in response to short-term stress in rats. The hormones that were  triggered enhanced the rats’ immune responsiveness during the fight-or-flight response. Their  findings paint a better picture of how our minds influence immune activity.

Chronic stress, or long-term stress, can suppress our immune system. People with weak  immune systems need to pay particular attention to their stress and to ways to systematically reduce it. Signs of a weak immune system include:
Frequent colds or infections
Digestive problems
Delayed wound healing
Skin infections
Blood Disorder or an autoimmune disease

Anxiety and its side-kick, chronic stress, are especially harmful to the immune system. If you  recognize that your nervous system reacts quickly with an anxiety or stress response, it is time  to pay attention to ways to reduce your stress. A busy mind that never stops or a busy schedule or chronic worry all can lead to chronic stress. One of the most effective ways to manage the  problem is to take frequent breaks during the day to stop the mental activity and consequent  cortisol production. As a great teacher once said when asked what is the best way to reduce  stress: “breathe!”

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