An executive comes down with the flu the night before an important presentation. A couple takes off for a much-needed vacation – and both get sick. A person in the throes of divorce suffers one chronic infection after another. Coincidence? Increasingly, researchers think not.
Stress exists in many forms. Any situation that you are not in control of is stressful, as is one that makes demands that you feel you cannot meet. Change, even positive change such as a new job or the birth of a child, is stressful. That’s why no one can completely escape stressful events. When we let stress get under our skin, our bodies respond with a flood of hormones that prepare us for extreme action-the “fight or flight” response.
The Body’s Response
Research has identified the stress response as a factor in many stress-related illnesses such as high blood pressure and digestive problems. Now there is evidence that stress can weaken the immune system. The hormones cortisone and adrenaline released in response to stress are such potent suppressors of the immune system that they are sometimes prescribed for disorders in which the immune system is overactive – such as allergies and autoimmune diseases.
Stress or Lifestyle?
Studies of large groups of people and their patterns of illness and stress showed a connection-the more stress, the more illness. And animal studies show that cells of the immune system decline when the animal is under stress. If stress increases your chance of illness, from the common cold to cancer, does that prove that stress affects the immune system? Probably, but not for sure. You see, people under stress often behave in ways that are in themselves harmful to the immune system: They sleep less, exercise less, eat poorly, smoke, drink and use drugs more than people who are less stressed.
What You Can Do
Whatever the cause of stress-related illness, one thing is sure. You can boost your health by dealing with stress head-on. This means taking a good look at your life and opting out of those activities that are stressful and not really necessary. Of course, no one can eliminate all stress even boredom is stressful-but you can reduce your body’s response to stress by learning some stress-management techniques.
Things like meditation, progressive muscle relaxation and visualization.
Get regular exercise, which is both healthful and stress-reducing, and avoid junk food.
Cut back on those approaches that don’t work-such as alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes.