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Will stress kill my immune system?

You've probably heard by now, either through some adage or through some New Age health blog that stress kills the immune system.

And that's true.

Kind of.

See, researchers have found that the immune system is actually really flexible under intense conditions.

When you enter a stress response, whether through an external trigger or an internal emotional stress state, your sympathetic nervous system kicks on.

It's that part of you that says "Oh HELL NO" and runs, or  says "oh HEELLLL NO" and fight back. Or, if you're too overwhelmed, you just freeze.

When that part of your ancient brain comes to life, a bunch of other processes do too, in order to prepare your body.

Some are:

  • Adrenaline (Oh sh*!t Oh sh*!t Oh sh*!t Oh sh*!t ahhhh!!)
  • The stomach stops digesting to send blood to other more necessary parts
  • Your brain literally cannot engage in rational thought. At all. It's all jelly and emotions up there when you're triggered into a stress response. (More on why your emotions are your friend later...)
So scientists noticed that when rats are stressed, their immune systems flare up to prevent them from infections.

And the same thing happens to you!

But that only counts for quick stressors.

Chronic stress is a different beast.

It's 10 years of hating your job.

It's 30 years of being unhappy in your marriage.

It's ignoring the signs of your body and pressing on.

And chronic stress actually does errode your immune system, especially as you age. In fact, ageing people are at the highest risk for infections and disease from external forces.

So will stress from Corona make me more susceptible to it?

Maybe. Unfortunately we haven't had the kind of science we need to know that answer for long enough to find out.

But based on what we know about how stress and the immune system work, we can guess that worrying about it for months at a time is probably not great for you, especially if you have other stressors going on.

The goal right now is stress reduction.

If you want to feel less anxious about all this NOW, I've got a short little project for you:
  1. Gather a pen and paper and find a place where you are by yourself for a little bit. If setting that boundary's hard for you, just tell whomever is in the house that you're going to take a nap or be in the bathroom for a while and not to bug you.
  2. Take a VERY deep breath. Get into a comfortable seated position and place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. If it feels good for you, close your eyes or keep them open. Breathe in through your nose and count to 4. Fill your belly up. Then breathe out through your nose and count to 4. Let all the air out. Do that until you start to feel a noticeable calm.
  3. Write down one word to describe how you feel right now. This is you validating where you're at. Say out loud, "I feel _____". We're allowing your body to recognize itself.
  4. Write down 5 things that make you feel happy and calm when you do them. For me, that means taking a bath, painting and listening to lo-fi hip hop, walking along the lake shore, calling a friend and petting my cat. It may look completely different for you.
  5. Pick one thing on that list and go do it! Pick the easiest thing and give yourself permission to go do it, right now, no shame.

And that's it!

It might feel uncomfortable to give yourself space to just focus on yourself.

Say, "hello discomfort," and let it hang out with you while you paint.

Tomorrow is later. Right now is about you.