Many people don’t realize that the immune system communicates with the brain, and the signals received impact behavior, thought, and mood.
As you know, when you get sick or injured, you might develop a fever, lose your appetite, lose your sense of thirst, have no libido, and feel anxious. These symptoms result from the pro-inflammatory molecules created by your immune cells. If these molecules are inactivated in animals, they will show no signs of physical sickness after being purposefully infected with an illness.
Now think about a time when you or someone you know suffered severe stress or depression – loss of appetite, loss of libido, increased anxiety? Likely the case. Many of the symptoms that we have when we are ill or injured are the same symptoms that we have when we are in psychological distress.
If an animal is socially isolated (an extremely stressful situation for them) or is given electrical shocks, they will form A LOT of those pro-inflammatory molecules. They will also develop those symptoms discussed above (loss of appetite, anxiety, etc.). In short, an animal that is purposefully stressed will develop symptoms akin to physical illness.
How much stress increases your risk of illness depends on many things, including your other risk factors, lifestyle, and coping style. Chronic stress leads to a litany of health problems that many can relate to – anxiety, depression, digestive issues, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and trouble with memory and concentration.
If you feel stress is a problem in your life or believe that you feel ill more often than the average person, you might want to try these things:
- Exercise, or at least stretch, whenever you can.
- Get a massage, practice deep breathing, or do anything else that profoundly relaxes you.
- Stop watching television and looking at your computer or phone screens 30-60 minutes before turning in for the night.
- Take time for your hobbies (if you can’t think of a hobby you enjoy, you are almost certainly burnt out).
- Force yourself to hang out with the people you love, even if you don’t feel like it or believe that you don’t have time.
- Try to avoid processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and sugary snacks when you feel stressed. At least as important as what you eat is how you eat, and learning about mindful eating is something that I recommend for everyone.
- Recall other times in your life that you’ve been super-stressed and how it eventually got better – if you’re the journaling type, it might help to write about these experiences.
- Tune in to your senses and make them happy – listen to music that you like, wear clothes that are comfortable for you, try some essential oils, etc.