Understanding stress and disease susceptibility

Can we make ourselves more susceptible to illness by emotionally stressing ourselves out about the current Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic?

The answer is an emphatic yes! Stress has a very real negative impact on our immune system. We are regularly exposed to diseases and infections, but our immune systems are so powerful that it helps us fight against many diseases. 


How Stress Affects the Immune System

Can your beliefs shift your biology? How is the mind connected with the body exactly? It is time to consider the inter-relationship between stress and our immune system. 

We now enter the world of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). PNI is the study of how the brain, nervous system and the immune system impact each other. We now know that stress leads to inflammation and can result in suppression of the immune system, which then ultimately leads to illness.  

Stress is not always a trigger, but it is our faulty coping techniques to our stressors that can lower our resistance to disease.  


The Role of Our Fight-or-Flee Instinct

Our DNA and the human nervous system are primed to fight or flee when there is threat perception. In modern times, we are no longer threatened by a wild animal, but our bodies are still instinctively mobilized to fight or flee when we are confronted by today’s threats. In today’s modern society, we generally do not fight or flee in such situations; our physiological responses to stress are not discharged. As a result, we are essentially building up stress in our bodies. 

This negative cumulative stress produces imbalances in the hormones which are critical in the regulation of body functions. This hormonal imbalance suppresses the immune system making one more susceptible to illnesses.

So how does all of the above relate to the current COVID-19 epidemic? The current hysteria and intense fear of the epidemic are in itself significant stressors. The advent of social media has only served to magnify this effect.  

Unless we learn how to cope with such situations, and manage our bodies’ stress responses, our immune systems will be undermined and make us more susceptible to illnesses in general, whether it be diabetes, infections, or even cancer.

We also know that the majority of those who have succumbed to the COVID-19 had underlying health issues — all the more important for us to boost our immune system.


Feeling Safe & Secure in the Current Environment

As human beings, we like predictability and stability. Most importantly, we, like all sentient beings, need to feel safe and secure.

Apart from taking the necessary precautions to keep ourselves safe from possible infection, we also need to deal with all the emotional disturbance, stress and fear that is accompanied by such a pandemic. By doing this, will not compromise our immune system and in fact, make ourselves more resistant to the virus.

The key is to understand the types of stress we are subjected to and use the proper techniques to deconstruct and counter the stressors so that our hormonal balance (and thus the integrity of our immune system) is maintained.

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Topics: COVID-19, Mental Health, Health & Wellness

Nivedita Ramanujam

Nivedita Ramanujam

Nivedita is an Australian and UK trained psychotherapist and hypnotherapist. She is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She is accredited in EMDR, CBT, TA, meditation, mindfulness and yogic breathing practices. Her special interests are trauma, panic attacks, anxiety, grief, depression, psycho-oncology and performance enhancement.