Written by, Sujatha Samynathan
Psychologist, Mindfulness Practitioner, Study Manager and Content Writer
Do you experience sweaty palms and pounding heart rate before an interview, or find yourself catching a common cold right before a presentation/exam? – “Stress” – we all deal with it at some point in our lives, don’t we?
Sometimes stress can be positive and motivate you to perform better. But, if you experience stress over a long period, it could become chronic, unless you take action.
Ready to take action and manage stress? Here’s the science behind what happens to your body and immune system, when stress hits and 5 simple ways to keep stress at manageable levels.
APA defines stress as the “physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors. Stress involves changes affecting nearly every system of the body, influencing how people feel and behave.”
Let’s put it simple, stress is your body’s normal reaction to everyday demands or pressures. According to APA, more than three-quarters of adults report physical or emotional symptoms of stress, such as headache, feeling tired, or changes in sleeping habits.
Short-term stress or acute stress is the most common form of stress. Stress can be positive, helpful, thrilling, and exciting. It enhances the ability to navigate short-term goals and changes.
Acute stress acts as an aid to help with improved immune function, memory, attention, etc. But when you are unable to arrive at a solution or continue to “feel stuck” for more than 30-minutes, cortisol floods the body and chronic stress takes over the cycle.
Long-term stress or chronic stress interferes with your ability to live a normal life for an extended period. When a person continues to face challenges without relief or relaxation periods, cortisol takes over.
It can affect your mind and body, causing wear and tear, resulting in serious effects on your body and the immune system.
How does stress get “into the body” and affect the “immune system”?
Our bodies are well equipped to handle stress in small doses, but when that stress becomes long-term or chronic, it can have serious effects on your body. The body’s automatic process to a stress response is known as “fight-or-flight.”
The “fight-or-flight” response triggers the brain resulting in the following series of events:
- The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) axis gets activated.
- Hypothalamus is a nucleus that connects the brain and pituitary gland (pea-sized gland attached to the base of the brain) to produce a hormone.
- This signals the adrenal glands (in the kidney) to increase “cortisol” or the “stress hormone.”
- Cortisol prepares the body to experience physiological changes (heart pounds faster, breath quickens, etc) resulting in a sense of preparedness for the stressful situation in hand.
But over time, when you are constantly placed in a stressful situation, the HPA axis continues to be in the loop and the stress hormone, “cortisol” floods the system.
This excessive flood of cortisol can result in a weak immune system and can reduce the body’s response to foreign invaders. Our body is more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections, when chronic stress takes over.
Chronic stress can impair communication of the immune system and the HPA axis. This can result in various physical and mental health conditions such as chronic fatigue, diabetes, obesity, anxiety, depression, and immune disorders.
Unfortunately, we can’t avoid all sources of stress in our lives, nor do we want to! But we can develop healthier ways of responding to them.
Here are 5 simple ways to help you relieve stress and improve the immune system!
1. Get Moving
According to the APA stress survey, 44% of adults exercise or walk to manage stress, 47% listen to music. More than 37% spend time with family or friends.
When you’re stressed, exercise might feel like the last thing you want to do! But, physical activity can calm the nervous system, pump endorphins and release the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. If you are a beginner, find an activity you enjoy and make it a part of your routine!
2. Be Mindful
You might find the advice “take a deep breath” to be a little cliché, but it’s true, when it comes to stress!
Mindful moments every day go a long way! Start by breathing in-and-out. Your breath is a powerful tool to calm you down instantly. Inhale slowly and deeply, hold your breath briefly and exhale slowly. Repeat this process five to ten times. Slow breathing is a sign of relaxation and can help reduce your stress levels.
3. Rest your mind
APA says that “nearly half of adults remain awake at night because of stress in the prior month.” It is important to sleep for the recommended seven to nine hours and minimize stimulating activities (phone, television, etc).
Synchronize with your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle by building a healthy sleep habit by going to bed at the same time each night.
4. Plan your path and remove triggers
Design and adhere to a personal daily routine. Routine eliminates the need to plan activities every morning, takes the guesswork out of your day. You can wake up to “do” instead of waking up to “plan.”
Start a “stress journal” by identifying your triggers. Write down the situation that creates the most stress and your responses. By recording your thoughts, feelings, and how you reacted to the situations, you can identify the patterns among the stressors, and learn to react better next time.
5. Eat healthy
Instead of fighting stress with emotional eating, start doing your best by making healthy food choices. Stress is closely related to a proper diet. Nourished bodies are prepared to cope with stress better.
Be mindful of what you eat and have a meal plan. It can come in handy and helps to make disciplined and planned food choices during stressful times!
Stress is a subjective term and comes in different forms. Stress management is not one-size-fits-all. But we all have a common goal, to stay happy, healthy, and productive. Be flexible, experiment what works best for you, and move forward!
Looking to sleep better, eat a bit healthier, move more, build a practice of self-care, or just want to feel more energy each day? Let Shapa be your virtual coach. Shapa focuses your program based on YOUR lifestyle and YOUR goals so you can build healthy habits and achieve lasting results. Learn more about the Shapa difference
About the author:
Sujatha is the study manager and content creator extraordinaire on the Shapa Health team. With a Bachelor’s in Psychology and Master’s in Clinical Psychology from India, she furthered her academic skills in Applied Behavior Analysis from Ball State University, Indiana, USA. Currently, she resides in Chandler, Arizona. She has 4+ years of expertise as a mental health professional trained in psychometrics and psychotherapy working with children, adolescents and adults. Over the past 2 years, Sujatha developed a passion for mindful living, neuroscience research, human behavior and decision making, and is driven by curiosity and gratitude. As part of the Shapa Health team she designs personalized missions utilizing behavioral science and mindfulness techniques to improve the personal health journey of the Shapa community. When not at work, she enjoys baking, hiking and spending time with family. Connect with Sujatha on LinkedIn.