We’ve all heard the saying “You’re going to worry yourself sick!” but how much truth is there to that statement?  Let’s take a look at potential effects of stress on our immune system and see how true this statement may be.   

Sources of stress

Yeah, yeah, yeah…we’ve all heard that we need to minimize our stressors.  This advice is given so much anymore that it almost goes in one ear and out the other.  It is easy to tune out when someone is telling you to minimize your stress because at some point we still have to live our lives.   

Maybe you’ve even taken steps toward trying to reduce some stress in your life like getting a massage or a pedicure or even taking the time to take a lunch break instead of eating while you work at your desk (I know, I really know how to let loose over here!).  But sometimes some of the things that can have the biggest negative effect on our health are stressors that aren’t as easy to spot or to change.   

Stressors can be hidden like toxins in our environment (cleaners and even new furniture or carpets), foods that were are sensitive or allergic to, keeping emotions bottled up, and even low socioeconomic status.  Positive things can be stressors too like getting married, getting a new job, or moving.   

Now if the stress you’re experiencing is more short-lived and you can get back to a more relaxed lifestyle within a few weeks (and you take it easy on yourself and allow yourself to recover!) the effects of stress are less likely to have as much of an impact.  But when low levels of stress become chronic, this can have a whole mess of effects down the chain, kinda like a game of dominoes.   

The downward spiral

When the stress becomes less of a one-time-thing and more of a habit, that’s when things start to get a little sketchy.    Our bodies respond to stress by releasing cortisone, adrenaline and noradrenaline.  We are going to talk particularly about cortisone, which is responsible for mobilizing amino acids and fatty acids as well as having an effect on the metabolism.   

When the stress is short lived, the body is more resilient and better able to recover before the next bout of stress.  But when you never give your body a break because everyone else’s requests and agendas come before yours and your self-care, the adrenals are no longer able to keep up and the result can be adrenal fatigue.   

The immune system relies upon that increased cortisol in response to a stressor (illness is a stressor also!) to help get immune cells like natural killer cells and killer T cells into the necessary tissues from the bloodstream.  When your body is so exhausted from chronic stress and it can no longer produce adequate levels of cortisol, the immune system is less able to do its thing and the result is simple: you get sick more often and maybe for longer periods of time.  This leaves you open not just to illness but also inflammatory diseases and even cancer.    

So are you doomed?

In our society, where rest and self-care are never a top priority, and may even be looked down upon, there is hope.  Try these things to keep stress under control and keep your immune system running at full tilt:

Our world is how we perceive it

It may not be possible to completely rid our lives of stress.  It may feel like you have to live on a dessert island with a select group of people.   But we can see how that worked for Gilligan.  But really, we can’t make the stress of daily life go away.  We can do our best to build boundaries for what we are comfortable with as well as remove the things that don’t make us happy.  But in the end, it is about the way we perceive our stress.  If we make a conscious effort to appreciate the things we have, recognize what things are actually going to affect us still 3 or 5 years down the road, and have the ability to relax about the other things, our existence can be a little more peaceful.   

We attract what we fear

Ok, thing of something in your life that you are fearful of (losing your job, your spouse being injured, not having enough money, getting fat…).  Think about how much time during your day you may spend thinking about these things.  Well the more we think about these things, the more energy we give to them.  And when we spend all this energy thinking about these things and ruminating in negative thoughts, it gets us down and can even attract those bad things into our lives.  So, turn it around.  Think, “I am so excited for when I get a raise,” “I am thankful that my husband is so helpful,” “Gosh, I love the way my hair looks today.”  When we choose to focus on more positive things, we are likely to attract more positive things into our lives.  

Let the feelings flow

Do you tend to keep emotions bottled up?  This can increase your stress levels and there is even evidence to suggest that keeping emotions inside can make killer T cells less active as compared to someone who is more expressive.  So find ways to get emotions out by talking to someone (a friend, spouse, or even a professional), journaling, or even just screaming into your pillow!

Get some laughs

The positive emotions associated with laughing help to decrease stress as well as improve natural killer cell activity.  So, do something that makes you laugh!  Watch a funny movie.  Or do what we do: watch clips of Jimmy Fallon on YouTube.   Here is our most recent favorite.   

Move more

We all know that exercise is good for us, but it is not just for losing weight.  Moving more can improve your circulation with helps circulate those immune cells to every tissue in your body.  Even a brisk walk counts.  Bonus points if its in nature or with the pooch as these things can decrease stress and improve immunity also!

So it seems as if we can actually worry ourselves sick.  Maybe some of those old wives’ tales are true!  Have you every done this to yourself?  Gotten sick after a big/prolonged stressor?  Well now that you are armed with some information, how will you prevent this in the future?  Let me know in the comments below or on Facebook!

Elissa Cohen

Doctor of Physical Therapy

Orthopedic Clinical Specialist