Chances are that your stress levels are through the roof right now, trying to work from home with a two-year-old (dog or human) in your lap while coping with the general response to living through a pandemic. You're probably familiar with the increased anxiety, trouble sleeping, and general irritability that might accompany your angst — but you might not know how stress affects your immune system.
"The first thing to know about stress is that it’s a completely normal reaction our bodies have to a physical, emotional, or biological stimulus," says Dr. Maggie Luther, N.D., medical director and formulator at personalized wellness and vitamin brand Care/of. In general, it's a good thing that your body responds strongly to stress, because it helps you stay vigilant and safe in sticky situations. "Cortisol is the main hormone released when your body is under stress," Dr. Luther explains. "It can help blood circulate around our bodies, diverting blood flow from things like our digestive system to get blood to the heart and brain instead. In doing so, cortisol can help us react to dangerous situations more quickly."
Heightened levels of cortisol isn't all fun and games, though. "Cortisol helps you respond to an acute stressor, but it also suppresses your immune system and makes you more susceptible to infections from viruses and bacteria," says Dr. Nate Favini, M.D., medical lead of preventive primary care practice Forward.
"These days it’s common for many people to be in a somewhat constant state of stress, which means our bodies don’t get the time they need to return to a calm state where they can repair themselves," Dr. Luther tells Bustle. In other words, when your neighbor totally isn't watching as they pull their car out of the driveway and into yours, your fight-or-flight system needs you to respond to an immediate threat. It'll pull energy away from your immune system to help you react quicker in the moment, and generally, that's a good thing — you want to respond quickly if you're about to get in an accident. But if you're always stressed, your body will stay in that gonna-get-hit-by-a-car state, and your immune system (and your general mood) will suffer.
If you've had a rough day at work, all of this extra excitement in your body can also mess up your ability to get quality rest. "Stress can make getting to sleep and staying asleep hard," says Ben Smarr, Ph.D., sleep science advisor for sleep and activity tracker start-up Oura. "The real problem is that sleep is important for managing emotions. So stress can disrupt sleep which makes you susceptible to stress, and to acting out, which can add drama to your life, and so increase stress. It's a hard cycle to break and shows how important it is to invest time in mental health, to avoid these cycles."
These stressful cycles may spiral into (or result from) depression, which is extremely taxing on the body. "Having depression can also contribute to a weakened immune system," says Dr. Andrea Amalfitano, D.O., Ph.D., dean of Michigan State University's College of Osteopathic Medicine. "Therefore, keeping our behavioral and mental health in order and treated can also support our immune systems." The more robust your system of self-care is, the more resilient you'll be able to become at coping with depression and stress. And the more resilient your body is against stress, the stronger your immune system can get.
In addition to seeking help from mental health professionals if needed, Dr. Luther tells Bustle that it's vital to control what you can to keep your stress levels relatively low. "Meditating, exercising, or even just taking a daily walk can be a great way to clear your mind and give your body the signal it needs that it can take care of itself," she says.
Dr. Maggie Luther, ND, medical director and formulator, Care/of
Dr. Nate Favini, MD, medical lead, Forward
Dr. Andrea Amalfitano, D.O., Ph.D., dean of Michigan State University's College of Osteopathic Medicine
Ben Smarr, Ph.D., sleep science advisor, Oura