Anxiety may be a mental health issue, but that doesn’t mean it is without physical consequences
Your immune system is the powerful defence mechanism your body uses to keep you safe from bacteria and viruses. Every time you ingest germs or bacteria, your body’s immune system destroys it quickly, because it’s trained to protect you from illness. It is important that we have a strong immune system so that our body is constantly working to keep us healthy. Anxiety has a complicated relationship with the immune system, and unfortunately there is some evidence that too much anxiety can actually weaken your immune system dramatically.
How does Anxiety and Stress Weaken your Immune System?
A little bit of short-term stress can be helpful to humans. An example of ‘good stress’ would be the short, intense burst of tension or anxiety that is felt before events like a test or job interview. Good stress is beneficial because it can provide a temporary extra boost of energy or alertness, which increases performance.
Too much stress, however, can be harmful in a number of ways. The experience of anxiety could be characterised as a type of long-term stress. When our brain perceives a threat, real or imagined, the infamous fight or flight response gets activated. This physiological process, coordinated by our Sympathetic Nervous System is designed to increase our chances of survival in dangerous situations by taking resources away from lower priority functions (such as immunity and digestion) and channelling resources into preparing the body to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ from the ganger. The fight or flight response involves the release of ‘stress hormones’ such as cortisol and norepinephrine in bulk all throughout your body. All types of anxiety – even those with more intermittent symptoms – cause these stress hormones to be released.
The presence of stress hormones and the changes to bodily functions as a result of anxiety can lead to a range of physiological changes, namely, lowered immune function and increased inflammation. It is thought that approximately 80% of disease and illness is caused or exacerbated by stress.
Treating anxiety can strengthen your immune system
Whilst you may not become anxiety free overnight, treating and addressing your anxiety can give your immune system a chance to return to optimal functioning levels. Essentially, your goal is: learn to turn down your ‘fight or flight’ response and turn on your ‘rest and digest’ response.
Some anxiety reduction strategies that can also have immune system boosting capabilities include:
- Healthy Eating and Hydration
- Eating healthier and drinking enough water throughout the day can have a beneficial effect on your health and wellbeing, and are also very important for improving immunity.
- Exercise is known to improve your immune system health, and has been proven beneficial as a strategy to manage anxiety. Regular exercise releases chemicals in the brain that drastically improve mood.
- Massage and Relaxation Exercises
- Massage is a known anxiety reduction strategy that also appears to have immune system benefits. It’s not clear why massage boosts the immune system, but studies have shown that it appears to be effective. It’s possible that massage is valuable because of its anxiety reduction benefits, but there is likely also some value to reducing pain and discomfort associated with muscle tension in a way that helps the immune system thrive. Furthermore, specific relaxation exercises such as meditation and guided imagery can help to turn down your ‘fight or flight’ system and turn on your ‘rest and digest’ system, thus giving your immune system a chance to get to work.
- Social support
- According to research, people with strong social support have better overall health and are more resistant to infection and disease.
- Behaviour modification techniques
- Changing how we think and respond to worrying stimuli can provide a level of controllability over our stress levels.
The relationship between anxiety, stress and illness is not simple, however, there is an important connection that should not be ignored. Remember, less stress = better immunity = better physical health.