Stress is a part of daily life. Our ability to handle stress largely determines the impact that it will have on our health and emotional well being. There are actually many different types of stress, and each has a unique effect on our bodies. As we stress more, we become less able to cope with daily tasks, and our body is less able to cope with physical changes. Let’s take a look at the relationship between stress and the immune system.

Taxonomy of Stress

In a study by the Institute of Medicine, Stress and human health: An analysis and implications of research, the authors classify 5 categories of stress. By understanding the different types of stress, we can learn how to take measures to cope with each type.

Acute time-limited stress

By definition, acute = severe; time limited = short-term. Facing short-term unique challenges that typically push us outside our comfort zone results in acute stress. Public speaking, confronting a phobia, and mental arithmetic are examples. Acute stress typically comes and goes quickly without lasting negative effects.

Brief naturalistic stress

Stress from facing a challenge, such as an academic examination or a job interview, is brief naturalistic stress. It is another short-term stress that results when we are in an uncomfortable situation, but does not have lasting detrimental effects.

Stressful event sequences

A longer-term stress, this category of stress centers around a focal event, such as the death of a family member, a major natural disaster, or loss of a job. Characterized by a series of challenges that result from the event, this stress pervades a person’s lifestyle. However, with stressful event sequences, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Although affected individuals may not know exactly when their challenges will subside, they have a clear sense that at some point in the future they will.

Chronic stress

Chronic stress is more unsettling. It involves a restructuring of a person’s life as a result of an event. Examples include a catastrophic injury resulting in disability, financial worries, unemployment, imprisonment, and divorce. Unlike the other types of stress, this affects a person’s stability and identity because there is no assurance of when — or even if — the challenge will end. Meaning there isn’t necessarily a light at the end of the tunnel.

Distant stress

This type of stress includes traumatic experiences that occurred in the distant past yet still have a negative effect on an individual. These are life-altering events that continue to haunt the afflicted person. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder falls into this category. Examples include child abuse, war-related trauma, having been bullied, and really any other event from the past that continues to cause stress. Interestingly, these do not have to be major events. Many people experience the debilitating effects of distant stress from seemingly insignificant events of the past that continue to have a lasting effect.

So what does all this really mean?

Understanding why you feel anxious and overwhelmed can help you find ways to manage stress. Acute time-limited stress and brief naturalistic stress are natural responses to common situations. Because these types of stress do not have a lasting impact, there is not a huge concern here. However, stressful events sequences, chronic stress, and distant stress can affect your health over time. 

Long Term Stress and the Immune System

The immune system was once thought to be autonomous, meaning it works independently of other body systems. Now we understand that the immune system actually responds to signals from many other systems in the body. In particular, the nervous system and the endocrine system have an effect on immune system response. Consequently, events to which the nervous system and endocrine system respond also elicit responses from the immune system.

All kinds of stress cause a release of cortisol. Whenever a person experiences a fear or a stressful event, the adrenal glands release this stress hormone. It then activates the sympathetic nervous system, which helps fuel our body’s “fight-or-flight” instinct in a crisis. Common physiological responses include increased heart rate and blood pressure. The problem arises when we experience chronic, or long-term stressors, and cortisol levels remain elevated for long periods of time.

An in-depth analysis of psychological stress and the human immune system revealed that short-term stressors actually elicit potentially beneficial changes in the immune system. However, the more chronic a stressor becomes, the more it affects the immune system in a detrimental way.

Chronic Stress Takes its Toll

According to the findings of the analysis, chronic stressors have negative effects on almost all functional measures of the immune system. And the more chronic the stress, the more immunosuppression occurs. The most detrimental changes occurred with changes in identity or social roles, such as losing a job or acquiring the role of caregiver. These chronic stressors are less controllable and offer less hope for the person afflicted. These qualities contribute to the severity of the stressor in terms of both its psychological and physiological impact.

Chronic stress may also enhance the risk for developing autoimmune disease, in which the immune system produces antibodies that attack healthy cells. In addition, individuals with autoimmune disease also appear to have more difficulty down-regulating immune responses after exposure to stressors. And another vicious cycle results. Stress produces stress, people.

The Psychological Connection

We’ve already seen that stress has a negative and cyclical impact on sleep. And sleep loss negatively impacts immune system function, thus the cycle continues. But the self-talk and thought patterns of people who are chronically stressed play a role as well. When we think we are stressed, so we become. Individuals who appraise their lives as stressful and/or report frequent intrusive thoughts exhibit a significant reduction in natural killer cell cytotoxicity. This suggests that a person’s perception of the stress they experience actually determines its impact on immune response.

The takeaway here is that our thoughts matter. The more we focus on the stress in our lives, the more it consumes and controls us. Shifting our focus to gratitude and the power within us helps to put us back in the driver’s seat.

The bottom line

Our physiological bodies were designed to respond to acute, brief periods of stress during life-or-death emergencies or other naturalistic events. However, through our stressful lives and negative thought patterns, we turn it on for months on end, worrying about finances, family, relationships, world disasters, etc. This long-term, no-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel outlook is largely responsible for the way stress literally consumes us and leaves our bodies less able to adapt and respond to challenges.

Finding ways to relieve, manage, and avoid stress is not just a good idea for your mental well-being. It may well be the key to protecting you from immunological deficiencies with long-term health repercussions.

Looking for ways to be proactive and avoid stress? Check out this post about Holiday Stress!