How Stress Affects Your Immune System

Tuesday, March 31st 2020

The mind-body connection is stronger than most people know. Stress and anxiety even impact our body’s ability to fight off disease. Decibel's Judy Maggio talks with psychologist Mara Karpel about ways to reduce stress and stay healthy during this troubling time.

Judy Maggio: So one of the things I wanted to know is, how this anxiety, this uncertainty many of us are feeling, impacts our ability to fight off illness? Because it does impact our immune system, right?

Mara Karpel: It does. You know first I want to say that anxiety is normal. In unsettled times, it's really normal to feel unsettled, right? We're all feeling it. So I think it's important to know that so that people don't feel like there's something wrong with them if they're feeling anxious. You know it's real natural when you feel like you're in a threatening situation to go into fight or flight, where you feel like you either have to fight off the danger or run from it. And that's really a natural instinct to protect us. But the problem is that there isn't too much we can do in terms of fighting or fleeing in this situation. We can't really run from it or fight it. We can do things to protect ourselves, and the biggest one is to stay home. So it kinda feels like we're fighting it off by doing nothing, right?

But the anxiety keeps going. We still hear the danger and all those stress hormones that we were releasing during fight or flight have nowhere to go. We're not releasing them in any way. So over a period of time, if we continue to release those stress hormones of adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol, it will start to break down almost every organ of the human body and decrease our body's ability to fight off illness, which at this point in time we really want to have a strong immune system. And just because there's this Covid-19 virus going around doesn't mean that there aren't other things that we could catch as well, like a cold. So we want to keep our immune system really strong and so it's important to find ways to deal with that.

JM: So let's talk about that. Let's talk about some everyday ways that we can cope with stress and reduce anxiety. I know for me, meditation and yoga help.

MK: Absolutely, so I'm glad you said that because Herbert Benson was a really famous researcher in relaxation and biofeedback, and he is the one that coined the term, the fight or flight, or stress reaction, and the relaxation response. And just like we have the mechanism to turn on that fight or flight, or stress reaction, that same mechanism can turn it off through things like yoga, meditation, exercise, laughter, anything that really puts us into that feeling of relaxation. It actually turns off that stress response.

Our body can't experience stress and relaxation at the same time because they are biologically opposite reactions. So in other words, if our heart is racing because we're stressed out, we can't feel our slow heart because we're relaxed, and vice versa. If we slow down our breathing, we're not having that quick shallow breathing that we have when we're anxious.

JM: One thing I've noticed is that sometimes I feel like myself, like I normally do, and I feel upbeat because I'm normally a positive person, but other times I really do feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders. And I bet a lot of people are feeling that way right now. Is that pretty normal?

MK: Absolutely. You know one of the wonderful things that has come out of this is that so many of these great teachers in self-help and meditation are doing free workshops. And so it's actually comforting for me when I take their workshop and I hear that they're feeling the same way that I'm feeling when I'm feeling stressed out. Of course we're going to feel that way because we worry about our families. We worry about our friends, our own health as well, but if we're far from our family, I'm far from my mom who's 91 years old and she's in New York, which right now is like the epicenter of this whole thing. Of course it's natural to have the feeling like, oh no, what's gonna happen. But knowing that we're not alone and that even these great masters of meditation are experiencing those moments, actually helps a lot. We're in the same boat.

JM: So I know that you do a lot of work with older folks and depression and just finding joy at different stages of life but particularly the latter stages of life. And you mentioned your elderly mom in New York. What advice would you have for older people and their caregivers or their children? Because this has added an extra layer of isolation and fear to those relationships.

MK: Well you know the isolation part is really so primary because you know the reports were coming out even before this happened that the largest reason for depression in the elderly was social isolation. So now we've added more isolation to it. So I think it's really important to reach out if you have an elderly family member, to reach out to them, to stay in contact. Call them on the phone. If they are technically able to, set up some sort of Skype or Facetime or Zoom or whatever on the internet so you can actually see each other. My own mom, she's not really able to do that, but she has a caregiver that comes in and so we're going to be speaking with her caregiver about Skyping with us whenever she comes to take care of my mom. I can see my mother on a camera in her apartment, so I can check on her, but she doesn't get to see me. But we talk on the phone everyday. So that's really important.

For listeners who might be elderly themselves, pick up the phone, call your neighbors. Call your friends. Call your family. It's very important to stay in contact. But the other part of that is the anxiety. I think in older people it's even more important to try to stay calm because older people tend to have more incidence of high blood pressure and heart disease and anxiety can have an effect on those things. When I was working in nursing homes, I found that when people went into a panic state, they made very, very poor decisions and ended up having accidents, falling more frequently, burning themselves and things like that. So it's really important to find ways to calm down.

One way is not listening to the news all the time. I think it's important to stay in touch with the news, to listen to a little bit of it everyday, to a trusted news source where you know you're getting expert information so that you know what's going on. And they may have doctors who are learning everyday that this virus goes on, they learn something new about the virus and how we can protect ourselves. So you know forewarned is forearmed, however that saying goes you know, if we have information we're better able to stay safe. But then after that, turn it off and use this time to do things that you enjoy doing. Reading a book or watching movies or picking up a new hobby or a craft. Or maybe you have those paints sitting in the closet and you keep saying you're gonna get to it sometime. Take them out and start painting. Creativity really is so helpful in decreasing stress. You know we are going to come out of this. This is not forever, it's temporary. And my silver lining view of this is that we're going to learn some new things during this time that are going to be really important, like what is really valuable to us, what we really love doing, and that we need to make time to do those things that we always say we don't have enough time to do.

JM: Great advice, my final question for you is thinking ahead to the light at the end of this tunnel, and that is once we do get back to semi-normalcy and we're allowed to feel like we can move about freely and go back to our past lives working everyday, or whatever that entails, human to human contact, what are some things we need to keep in mind to stay mentally focused at that time? Because these changes are also times that are stressful.

MK: Sure, any change whether it's good or bad, is stressful. And we need to be able to have the tools to cope with it. Even getting married or having a baby is considered very high on the list of stressful events because it's a change. I think what I was just talking about is really important going forward. The things that we spend time right now discovering are really important to us, and the passions maybe that we discover, the things that we realize that we love to do, being creative, having that meditation practice, exercising. Right now we might not be able to go to the gym, but we can walk outside. There's no rule against walking outside, or exercise in your house with a home practice.

There's lots of videos for that. It's important to continue to do those things as we move forward and also keep in mind the connection. And I really think, more than anything, this virus has really brought to light how connected we all are, right? Somebody got sick in China, and now we're all stuck in our house here. If that's not being all connected, I don't know what is. But there's a real positive side to that as well in that we are connected and we are a family, a global family and we can support each other and stay in touch with each other. And don't get into our own little, our own lives, and we can learn to be compassionate and caring about other people because right now we know that what we do in this moment has a health effect on people who we don't even know in our community. Staying home is not just for us, it's for our whole community so that we don't spread this. And we need to keep that in mind, that compassion, and that larger view. The view that we really care about that little old lady who lives down the street who we don't know.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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