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How Stress Ravages Your Immune System in the Coronavirus Outbreak

The more you can keep calm, the better equipped your body will be at rejecting the coronavirus

Oh no! Oh no! Oh no! The coronavirus is coming! What if I get infected? What if I infect my girlfriend?! That would be awful and scary and —

Crap! I heard that stress weakens your immune system, and I clearly have a lot of stress! Aaaaaaahhhh!

Relax, Ian. Relax. Freaking out does absolutely nothing to keep you from contracting the coronavirus. In fact, stress can cripple your immune system and make you more susceptible to the coronavirus. 

“Research has firmly established a connection between stress and a lowered immune system,” confirms licensed professional counselor Jamie Cannon, author of the Stress Fracture blog. “From a clinical therapy perspective, I’ve focused mainly on the impacts of long-term stress and anxiety on overall wellness. Chronic stress, lasting days and months and even years, has a very damaging influence on our body’s ability to fight illness effectively. I also strongly believe that the duration of stress, as opposed to just measuring the severity of the stressors, has the greatest negative impact on immune system functioning. Individuals who experience long-term stress and anxiety, and don’t find a way to manage it effectively, tend to find themselves on the receiving end of more chronic diseases. One of the most well-known examples of this is the correlation between stress and heart disease that’s been very well-established in the medical field.”

More specifically, when we get stressed out, our body releases a stream of the hormone cortisol, which, in short spurts, can actually boost the immune system by helping to limit inflammation. Over long periods of time, however, your body grows accustomed to having too much cortisol in your blood, opening the door for even more inflammation. Moreover, too much cortisol over too much time suppresses the immune response by lessening the number of infection-fighting lymphocytes in our system. 

Stress can also negatively impact the immune system indirectly, as highly stressed individuals like myself tend to engage in intensely unhealthy coping behaviors, like chain-smoking while chugging 10 margaritas.

Again, though, stress really only has a noticeable effect on your immune system after letting it stew for a prolonged period of time, which means if you were chilling before the coronavirus came around, your body is probably still doing just fine. “The bottom line is that chronic and long-lasting stress makes it easier to get sick and harder to fight off illness,” Cannon reiterates. “Stress has a cumulative effect on our bodies — over time, we become less likely to heal, more susceptible to infection and more disposed to serious disease. If you think of stress in relation to inflammation in the body as well, there are many reasons to believe that it’s an underlying factor. We know now that many diseases can be correlated with inflammation, so in many ways, chronic stress can be a double-whammy for our immune system.”

As a constantly stressed person, though, that just makes me feel worse. So, you know, What do I do? What do I do? WHAT DO I DO? “From a mental-health standpoint, being aware of the impact that long-term, uncontrolled stress and anxiety can have on our immune system is the first step in managing it,” Cannon says. “Once we become aware of stress, it’s imperative for our overall wellness that we find healthy ways to manage it.  We can’t always escape stress — our current world situation is a great example of this. We can, however, limit our exposure to it as much as possible and find ways to lessen the impact it has on us. There’s no ‘right’ way to handle stress of the magnitude that everyone is currently facing. Each individual has to master the approach that works best for them. Learning to handle stress and anxiety effectively is probably one of the most valuable methods we have in our arsenal to build up our immune systems.” 

I personally recommend checking out our guide to managing stress in an apocalyptic world, which is all too relevant right now and explores an assortment of mental tools that you can use to limit your freakouts — because, sadly, elderberry and Quarantinis aren’t going to cut it this time around.