What is Stress?

Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. Although we often think that stress is a bad thing, short bursts of stress can be good at helping us meet work deadlines or get out of dangerous situations. 

Chronic stress is a type of stress that continues for a long period of time. If someone is dealing with chronic stress, the body always feels alert even when there is no danger. This constant feeling of stress can be harmful to many parts of the body, including the immune system.

Stress and Your Immune System

Your body’s immune system contains many cells, tissues and organs that work together to fight off germs, viruses, etc. Chronic stress can make your immune system weak, causing you to catch colds and other illnesses more easily. This is because when we are stressed, our body releases a substance called cortisol. If we are dealing with chronic stress, too much cortisol is released and causes our immune system cells to not work as well. This makes us more likely to catch a cold when viruses enter our body. 

Managing Chronic Stress

Chronic stress can arise from a number of difficult life events such as work, family or marriage troubles. Some people may be so used to chronic stress that they don’t even notice it.

Dealing with stress in unhealthy ways can also weaken the immune system. Poor diet, smoking or alcohol are all behaviors that can hurt your immune system and make you more likely to get sick.

Some healthy ways to deal with stress include:

  • Regular exercise
  • Making time to do things you enjoy
  • Connecting with loved ones in social settings
  • Maintaining a healthy diet
  • Ask others for help when you need it (in the workplace or at home)

Relaxation Response  

Although we cannot avoid all of life’s stressors, practicing relaxation exercises such as meditation, yoga or deep breathing can help reduce this stress that can cause health problems over time.

  • Create a routine. Choose a special place where you can sit comfortably and practice deep breathing.
  • The key to this response involves shifting your focus from stressors to a different focus point—such as the calm, deep rhythms of your breathing.
  • Try to practice a calming technique at the same time every day. This can help to build the habit and make this relaxation something you look forward to.

Sources: Medline Plus. Harvard Health Publishing. The Health Tip of the Week is for educational purposes only.  For additional information, consult your physician. Please feel free to copy and distribute this health resource.