How managing stress levels can boost our immune system
With concerns about health - both physical and psychological - prevalent in the news, psychological well-being has rarely been more important. So, when it comes to boosting our immune response, it makes sense to put measures in place which help combat stress, loneliness and anxiety, right through to tackling insomnia.
As with any medical condition which affects the immune system - and there are many - it is important to take care of our psychological health which, because it is hidden, is often neglected.
The mind influences the body and the body influences the mind.
Stress hormones such as cortisol are known to disrupt the overall immune functions. The anxiety and depression which comes from chronic stress can lead to low-grade inflammation throughout the body. This in turn seems to inhibit the protection of antibodies (which are needed to enjoy good health).
Studies indicate people who are high in stress levels tend to show impaired responses to other kinds of impact - like that of bereavement and other losses. In short, it appears that individuals who are stressed or anxious tend to churn over their worries for lengthy periods. This can become harmful in all kinds of ways, including a reduced capacity to build long-lasting protection from conditions that impair our immune systems.
How to manage stress levels
So, it's time to shine a light on how we can manage our stress levels more effectively:
- we need to sleep well
- take time out for ourselves
- connect with other people
- the more people we connect with the better, as it gives us a wider pool of people on which to draw
- find helpful distractions (and perhaps discover and integrate them into our daily lives) these include reading, writing, crafting, gardening, music exercise
As I remind my clients (and myself), the brain cannot focus on two things at once - not in equal measure, at least. We focus on one thing; the other stuff may be a constant, irritating humming in the background which may need addressing. Just not now.
So, training our brain to find a positive escape which requires focus and discovering a healthy escape can help give the mind a rest from unhealthy stress. This enables us to become calmer, more reflective. With practice, a readymade emotional tool kit can be built which we can access, add to and improvise at any time.
Studies have shown our mental health and overall stress levels play an important part in keeping us well. The consequences of stress are particularly evident in older people and those with underlying health conditions who are known to have weaker immune systems. And carers - of any age and in any situation - seem especially vulnerable given that round the clock caring can weaken inner responses to stressful situations.
Mental strain and health
Mental strain can also have a long term effect on our health and the effects of stress can depend on our personal coping mechanisms. Thinking patterns can be explored effectively through therapy.
Sleep deprivation is a common and serious issue and from what I see in my practice, a common experience across the generations. Like chronic stress, poor sleep seems to make the immune system more overwhelmed leading to reduced protection in the long term. The level of social support we have is also important - loneliness impacts us in all kinds of ways. People with a smaller network tend to show weaker protection.
Therapy for stress
As immune diseases tend to flare up during periods of stress, it's important to know our triggers and act upon them. A therapist who works with well-being can help clients to identify their triggers, and work towards a plan of how to address them.
Various therapeutic interventions can help people to change their thinking and influence their own behaviours and feelings in a positive way. Expressive writing can help, as can painting and crafting - anything to get those stress levels down.
I have found in my practice those who sought help with their mental well-being prior to the pandemic have fared well over the past 12 months; subsequently, they have often booked in for a 'top up', just to check in to see if they were doing okay (most were). This suggested a good level of self-awareness which may have been absent prior to their therapy.
Those who have more recently sought help, seem to have recognised their stress levels are getting in the way of their day to day lives, mindful perhaps, that with the easing of COVID restrictions rising stress levels need to be addressed. This group seem to be benefitting from putting their own plans and goals in place, whilst learning through therapy, to recognise their triggers and identify what/who affects them both positively and negatively.
Combating stress levels are likely to involve letting go of how we have tackled issues in the past and often requires new ways of how to look after ourselves, and adapting our responses accordingly.
This often means we need to slow down and relax, an activity which a lot of us, in this world of 24/7, have not learnt how to do. I believe we need to educate ourselves in doing so or we risk the body doing it for us, which all too frequently results in chronic debilitating illness (physically and psychologically).
Once we become aware of the potential benefits of managing our stress levels has on our immune system, this could be sufficient motivation for practising self-care. Better to learn to take control of our whole selves if we can.
A good therapist can show us how.