Chronic stress and your immune system

Tips to help you stay healthy when life gets complicated
Man sitting at desk rubbing his brow

If you’re dealing with more stress than usual right now, you’re not alone. COVID-19 is taking a toll on the psychological well-being of people across the United States. When so much of your energy is committed to caring for loved ones or worrying about the future, stress can mount up quickly and leave an effect on your physical health; specifically, your immune system. However, by addressing the causes behind stress, and ways to manage it, you may be able to help mitigate its effects.

How does stress impact your immune system?

When you feel stressed, your body and mind prepare to take action against whatever’s causing an emotional reaction, deprioritizing your immune system in the process. This gut-level reflex is often called the fight-or-flight response.

For many of us over the past few months, our fight-or-flight responses have been working overtime. As the realities of COVID-19 influence our daily lives, our bodies continue to secrete cortisol, the chemical that drives our fight-or-flight response, causing necessary increases in blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol levels. Effects like these occur as your body stops focusing on normal functions and instead focuses on preparing you to avoid danger.

We all have moments of stress, but the risk lies in enduring this high-stress state for too long: Chronic stress may make you more susceptible to viruses and injury.

Curbing chronic stress

Of course, it would be impossible to rid yourself of stress altogether. Many causes of stress are outside of our control. Instead of seeking to avoid them entirely, try monitoring and slowing your stress reactions.

Everyone has their go-to coping mechanisms. Some of them are healthy, like talking to a loved one or writing your thoughts in a journal. Others, such as drinking alcohol, smoking, and overeating, can cause even more significant harm to your health.

Finding healthy ways to cope with stress now can help you prepare for the next time you meet the urge to turn to unhealthy behaviors, easing your fight-or-flight response in the process. Some examples of healthy ways to manage stress include:

  • Deep breathing
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep
  • Exercising
  • Journaling
  • Meditating
  • Talking about your feelings with a loved one
  • Volunteering and helping others
  • Talking to a mental health professional
  • Practicing mindfulness (which may actually boost your immune system)

Your children may also benefit from the same stress-management techniques, but identifying their expressions of stress often requires a closer look. The emotional and behavioral symptoms many children experience during times of high stress include:

  • New or recurring fears (fear of the dark, fear of being alone, fear of strangers)
  • Clinging, or unwillingness to let you out of sight
  • Anger, crying, whining
  • Inability to control emotions
  • Aggressive or stubborn reactions
  • Regressing to behaviors present at a younger age

The management techniques you teach your children now have the potential to help them deal with stress for the rest of their lives. Your goal is to notice unhealthy coping mechanisms – think tantrums, lashing out, making themselves sick – and substitute them with useful coping skills like the ones listed above.

The same rings true for older adults. No matter your stage of life, it’s important to understand where your stress is coming from and what you can do about it.

  • Loneliness: Everyone is feeling more lonely than usual right now, and older people may be feeling it more than most. Even if it feels awkward at first, making an effort to reach out to people is the best way to increase your social connections. A phone call to a family member, text to a friend, or even commenting on a social media post can be a great start.
  • Availability: With fewer caretakers able to make in-person visits, many older Californians may grow concerned about finding masks, getting meals, or even completing their day-to-day routines. If you need additional help, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed a resource for higher-risk adults who may require added assistance during the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Worry: Concern about your health is common, especially now that government organizations and news outlets have warned that those over age 65 are at a higher health risk from COVID-19. Take action and make a plan to manage your physical and mental health. When your fears start to rise again, remind yourself that you’re already doing everything in your power to stay healthy, and stick totried-and-true relaxation exercises.

More stress management tools

Believe it or not, stress isn’t inherently harmful. Acute stress can actually be a great motivator when you need it most; for example, that automatic internal alarm that tells you to smash the brakes when the car in front of you jolts to a stop. This type of stress is short-term and has helped humans survive in the world for centuries. After the stressful event, your body returns to its normal state, and you’ve built a little more resiliency to help you when the next stressful circumstance arises.

That said, if you’re always in fight-or-flight mode, the reaction can stay in your body indefinitely. Your body may increase blood flow to the heart at the expense of your other organs, suppressing your immune system and making you more susceptible to disease. Over time, that stress may contribute to the development or worsening of symptoms of autoimmune conditions like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and Crohn’s disease.

With the help of psychotherapy techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), people of all ages can turn stress into something they can identify, isolate, and use as a helpful cue for identifying necessary lifestyle changes. In addition, many Blue Shield of California members have access to Wellvolution® to manage stress on the fly.

If you’d like to learn more about CBT or other management techniques that can help you avoid the effects of stress, take advantage of Telehealth. Telehealth will pair you with a care coordinator to guide you through potential treatments and connect you with professionals who specialize in stress and anxiety management.

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