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Stress & the Immune System

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Stress & the Immune System

When the season for colds is upon us, we would all do well to heed the advice of our mothers to eat well, get plenty of rest, dress warmly and wash our hands. But medical research points towards one weapon in the war against the common cold that mom may not have known about: controlling your stress.

In a dramatic demonstration of the direct link between mental state and disease, doctors measured the level of stress experienced by volunteers during the past year, and then exposed them to several strains of cold-producing viruses. The research showed the direct correlation between the volunteers’ levels of psychological stress and their likelihood of getting a cold.
This study confirmed that our emotions play a powerful role in setting the tone of the immune system, the part of the body that fights infections. Through a complex interplay of cells and chemicals, the brain influences the ability of the immune system to destroy infection-causing invaders like viruses and bacteria.

When we are feeling good emotionally, the immune system responds as a strong ally in keeping us healthy physically. But when emotionally difficult situations enter into our lives, the immune system begins to falter and a variety of illnesses, such as colds, can ensue.

What stressful situations can translate into decreased immune response? Research has pointed towards loneliness, bereavement, work and school stress and any severe or protracted stressors as possible contributors to physical illness. For example, caregivers for spouses with dementia have more respiratory tract infections than same-aged persons who are not caregivers. Medical students have a decreased number of infection-fighting cells during exam time than at other times of the year. In addition, people with severe depression have chronically elevated stress responses and suffer from increased number of infectious illnesses.

Many stress-reducing activities are available that can boost your immune power and decrease the risk of getting sick. These include:

RELAXATION - Relaxation techniques are any mental approaches used to gradually, naturally and consciously let go of physical and emotional tension, in order to achieve a deep sense of calm and restfulness. They are generally practiced in a comfortable, quiet place and involve focusing on a specific object, such as breathing or a word, and maintaining a non-judgmental, curious attitude. A good relaxation tape can help guide you through your relaxation session. You may also wish to read about relaxation in The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook by Martha Davis. Find a relaxation technique that you like and practice it for at least 10 minutes.

EXERCISE - Daily aerobic exercise has been shown to relieve stress and significantly reduce symptom of depression and anxiety. Exercise increases the level of endorphins, the “feel good” chemicals, in our brains. It can result in decreased muscle tension and produce an overall sense of calm and well being. Regular, vigorous exercise - three times per week for twenty minutes -- is an important component of any mental and physical wellness program. If you have a physical illness, you may wish to consult a physician before starting an exercise program.

SOCIAL SUPPORT - As the song goes, “We all need someone we can lean on.” The process of caring for others and being cared for by others produces powerful changes in the brain and ultimately in the immune system. People with strong support networks suffer from fewer illnesses and are less likely to die from those illnesses than people who are socially isolated. Sometimes we are reluctant to ask for the caring we need or feel that we don’t have enough people to support us. Clubs, religious organizations and sports teams are all good ways of building your support network. Set regular appointments to meet with the people you care most about - and let them know how things are going for you. Remember: we are not meant to heal and grow on our own - we need others to help.

SPIRITUAL SUPPORT - Most of us have some sense of a god or spiritual force in our lives. Often our spiritual beliefs can help us through difficult times and provide a deep sense of meaning and purpose. Find ways to build your connection with your spiritual self, however you personally define it. Attending religious services, taking time to pray or meditate, or building small “Sabbaths” into your day - brief breaks to go within and rest - are all good ways to develop your relationship with god.

FINDING BALANCE - Our adult responsibilities often pull us in many directions at once - work, children, relationships and personal interests. We might feel drained at the end of the day, with a sense of having accomplished little, or perhaps unsure of where we are headed in our lives. Take some time to clearly define those activities and directions that are deeply meaningful to you. Set specific goals and timelines for achieving them. Look for ways to balance the demands of your life by setting aside specific times for those people and activities that you care most about.

PROFESSIONAL HELP - Many of us reach times in our lives when the problems we encounter seem beyond our ability to handle them. If keeping up with the daily grind seems overwhelming, it may be time to seek the help of a mental health professional.

So as winter approaches and the stress of the holiday season increases, pay attention to of your emotional needs. Although engaging in stress-reducing activities may not guarantee a cold-free winter, taking good care of your mental health may bolster your immune power and decrease the likelihood of getting sick.