Is Stress Making You Sick?

You work long, tiring days trying to meet deadlines, keeping your social life active, making sure you’re a conscientious member of your community and making sure your family’s needs are being met, only to go on a well-deserved holiday and spend most of the time in bed with the flu! Why is it that you managed to hold everything together and the moment you relax and take a holiday, you get sick?

The answer may lie with Psychoneuroimmunology – the study of the interactions between psychological process, the nervous system and immunity. Research has found that when we are stressed, whether it be for only a few minutes (acute stress) or for days or longer (chronic stress), our immune system experiences a complex array of chemical and hormonal changes. The immune system forms part of our bodies defence system.  It provides response to internal dangers such as tissue damage and the threat of infection and disease and providing our body with this defence takes a lot of energy. When we are fighting infection or disease, our desire to engage in other activities such as socialising, eating and engaging in hobbies is diminished.But what happens when our energy is required elsewhere? When we are faced with an acute stress, where we have to make a quick to decision to ‘fight or flee’, our energy resources are redirected to our heart and larger muscles. Our immune system is temporarily altered so that we can ‘fight’ off the danger. It is a survival ‘compromise’. When the danger subsides, the immune system is restored to its optimal level. If the threat is short lived, both defence systems can still provide us with effective protection.

What happens when the ‘fight or flight’ lasts days or sometimes even years? During times of chronic ‘external’ stress, when we are busy trying to meet the demands of our daily life, our personal defence systems that are designed to respond to an acute phase becomes maladaptive during prolonged stress. Our body has to make a decision where to direct its resources. So it comes a process of decision making – ‘pause and plan’; fighting infection is important but not at the expense of protecting yourself and your resources (lifestyle factors, family responsibilities, social demands, marital conflict, bereavement etc). The over-activity of stress hormones can then cause wear and tear on our body’s ability to respond to infection and disease.

So, essentially our body needs to prioritise its defence mechanisms and direct the energy to where it appears to be needed the most. We have the internal response to infection & disease or the behavioural responses of ‘fight or flight’ and ‘pause and plan’.

When we lead a life that is imbalanced, when it consists solely of tasks and ‘to-do’ lists, and responding to the demands that we place on ourselves or the threats that come about through grief and loss, we are not only depleting our energy stores but we are also shutting down our body’s natural ability to respond to infection and disease.

With this in mind, it is vital that you set aside the ‘to do’ list momentarily and take a break from the stress and distress that life can sometimes throw your way. Engage in meaningful activities that relax you. Learn how to be ‘mindful’ and experience and observe the world in its present moment. Take care of your health – Get enough sleep, eat healthy, nutritious food and keep your body active. Laugh and take comfort in your relationships friends and family.

By maintaining a balance life, you are nurturing your body’s defence systems providing it with the energy to respond to injury, infections & disease. You may just find yourself taking that long awaited holiday with enough energy to enjoy yourself, rather than fighting off the flu!


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Reiche, EMV, Nunes, SOV & Morimoto, DM. (2004). Stress, depression, the immune system, and cancer. The Lancet Oncology, vol 5 –

Segerstrom, SC. (2010). Resources, Stress, and Immunity: An Ecological Perspective on Human Psychoneuroimmunology. Annals of Behavioural Medicine. Vol 40. p 114-125.

Segerstrom, SC & Miller, GE. (2004). Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytical Study of 30 years of Inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, 130 (4), p 601-630.

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