You’ve heard it over and over—stress makes you sick. People who suffer from chronic stress are at greater risk for a range of serious conditions, from depression to heart problems to even infectious diseases. But how? What’s the connection?
It’s worth taking a moment here to explain to you why this is happening, based on some new research out of Carnegie Mellon University, and which I came across in a piece on CNN (“Is Psychological Stress Causing All of Your Health Ailments?”). In it, the lead researcher, Sheldon Cohen mentions how prolonged stress can affect the body’s ability to regulate its own inflammatory response. Instead of having a brief inflammatory response to things like bumps and bruises or mild viruses, inflammation stays turned on, almost like putting a brick on the gas pedal with the car in park. Ultimately, inflammation can spin out of control.
Why is this a problem? We know that inflammation can be a precursor to disease, and so we need to control it. Stress makes it harder for us to do so.
What the Study Showed
The CNN piece explains Cohen’s study this way:
“After completing an intensive stress interview, 276 healthy adults were exposed to a virus that causes the common cold and monitored in quarantine for five days for signs of infection and illness. Here, Cohen found that experiencing a prolonged stressful event was associated with the inability of immune cells to respond to hormonal signals that normally regulate inflammation. In turn, those with the inability to regulate the inflammatory response were more likely to develop colds when exposed to the virus.”
I find this fascinating because it is yet one more piece of evidence showing us not only that stress can make you more susceptible to illness, but also how that happens in the body. Stress increases inflammation and increased inflammation can make us sick.
Try It: 3 Tips for Reducing Inflammation
The good news is that we can learn to manage stress more effectively. Learn to manage stress more effectively and you can decrease inflammation—and lower your risk of getting sick. Start with three of my favorite tips.
- Take a Few Deep Breaths. Deep breathing can put you in a relaxed state. Try putting your hands on your lower stomach (over the belly button). Now breathe in through your nose and feel your lower abdomen expand. Breathe out through your mouth and feel your lower stomach contract. Inhale for a count of 5, and exhale for 5. Do this for 5 minutes several times per day or whenever you feel stressed.
- Avoid excessive caffeine. You might live by your morning joe, but too much can feed the flames of anxiety. If you need a fix, try black tea. You won’t get quite as much caffeine into your system and black tea has an anti-inflammatory effect in the body (green tea works as well).
- Make a To-Do List. Rather than worry about all the things you have to do, write them down. This puts you in the driver’s seat of your day. Be sure to break each action item into a step you can accomplish today (“Look into flight times and availability”) rather than something that has multiple moving parts (“plan the trip to Florida”). And speaking of vacation, jot down what you’re in the middle of and what needs to happen next so that when you come home, you have no trouble picking up where you left off.