It is well known that ongoing stress sets the stage for illness and disease.
The human brain alerts the endocrine system via defense signals. A barrage of hormones is then released into the body, which prepares it for critical situations (fight or flight), yet simultaneously depresses the immune system.
Specifically, this mechanism triggers chemical reactions, which flood the body with cortisol, along with other stress-related hormones, decreasing inflammation, white blood cells and NK cells, while increasing the development and growth of tumors and the rate of infection and tissue damage.
The precarious balance of constant communication between body and brain can be disrupted by any type of emotional or physical stressor.
Experts hypothesize that stress is to blame for as much as
90% of all ailments and disorders, including cancer and heart disease.
Preventing damage relies heavily on our response to stress.
This is where the psychological immune system comes into play. The cognitive key player is responsible for creating a barrier of protection to sustain us through chronic stress, whereas the biological immune system keeps disease and disorder at bay.
Two important elements of the psychological immune system are Resilience: facing adversity and coming out stronger and Eudaimonia: internal happiness, which is not contingent on external pleasure. We have much more control over mental states than we realize and can influence the way our bodies react during less than ideal circumstances.
According to researchers at the University of California, simply choosing to remain positive reduces the wear and tear on the immune system. In fact, incurable conditions progressed at a slower rate in people with more optimistic outlooks.
Biologically speaking, this is due to hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which aids in controlling the immune system, body temperature, digestion, mood, libido, and energy levels. It was found that those study participants with a more optimistic outlooks had healthier HPA Axis’.
The solution to keeping all systems in balance is remaining present in daily life, which makes it much easier to respond in a way which mitigates potential damage to the body.Adopting stress management techniques can also be beneficial to staying in proper alignment physically and emotionally. Some ideas are:
- Avoid toxic people. Understandably, this is not always possible. However, boundary strategies can be put in place to negate a poor response to stress. First, identify your boundaries. Be intentional in determining your needs, before communicating or enforcing them. Next, express your expectations in a clear, calm, and concise manner. Finally, reevaluate your choices and develop an alternative course of action if boundaries are not respected. It may be necessary to choose to detach from a negative situation physically or by determining not to react offensively, but instead responding in a more positive way; such as shrugging a mean comment off as a joke or ignoring unproductive conversation. Unfortunately, it may be in your best interest to stop associating with toxic people if other tactics are unsuccessful.
- Make habits of relaxation and physical exercises. Meditation, guided imagery, massage, and fitness regimens are all excellent ways to keep the body psychologically and biologically healthier. Regular exercise releases beneficial hormones and helps burn excess energy, reducing the likelihood of anxiety and other disease states that breakdown organs. Relaxation techniques put the mind at ease; also safeguarding against bodily attacks due to stress.
- Implement healthy dietary and hydration goals each day. Good nutrition and adequate water intake are both important elements of regular, daily life, but even more so when the pendulum swings to more difficult times. Properly supporting your body will not only make it easier to keep your mind in a more positive realm, you will also enjoy the benefits of improved immunity.
- Practice behavior modification. Reflect on how you will choose to respond in times of great pressure before the situations arise. Forethought will allow you to recognize old habits that may be harmful to the psychological and biological immune systems.
- Develop a healthy support system. Life is not meant to be lived in solitude. Surround yourself with positive people that can offer valuable insight and perspective. Those with strong social support are better able to withstand existential trials due to greater overall health and stronger resistance to infection and disease.
- Keep a positive attitude. Psychologists at the University of California discovered that positive self-affirmation aids in the alleviation of stress. Furthermore, even those with unrealistic optimism experienced more protection and favorable outcomes regarding the immune response. Unfounded fear of negative events will only paralyze the psyche; transferring harmful effects to the physical body. Consequently, despite the worst of circumstances, as humans, we have the resilience to respond much better than our fear would have us believe.
In conclusion, the connection between stress and illness does not create a simple relational dialogue.
Keeping balance requires the dedication of quieting the mind and listening to the body. Disruption due to physical or emotional strain clearly causes chaos to the closely interrelated psychological, endocrine, and immune systems.
Awareness around this interdependent trio allows for a more synergistic, harmonious approach to health and wellness. We have not only the ability, but also the responsibility, to empower our bodies and minds to live the best existence possible.
DeWall, N. & Baumeister, R. (2007) The Terror to Joy Automatic Tuning to Positive Affective Information Following Mortality Salience. Psychological Science; 18(11): 984-990.
Andrews, P. W. et. Al. (2007) The functional design of depression's influence on attention: A preliminary test of alternative control-process mechanisms. Evolutionary Psychology; 5 (3): 584-604
Taylor, S. E. et. Al. (2000) Psychological resources, Positive Illusions, and Health. The American Psychological; 55(1): 99-109