Worrying can lower your immune system if you don’t learn how to redirect your mind to something else. As they say, worrying gives your brain something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.
Unfortunately, humans naturally gravitate to more negative thinking patterns. That behavior happens because brains evolved this way to scan for threats in our environment. However, in our modern world, worrying can take its toll on our mental and physical health if left unchecked.
We have so many stressors in our modern environments. We deal with things from loud noises to responsibilities to work stress. Also, we must deal with countless internal and external stimuli on a daily basis. And this situation can easily overwhelm our immune systems. According to The American Institute of Stress, we have a stress epidemic on our hands due to the urgent and overly stimulating culture we live in.
Here are a few statistics from their website:
- Percent of people who regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress: 77%
- Regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress: 73%
- Feel they are living with extreme stress: 33%
- Feel their stress has increased over the past 5 years: 48%
- Cited money and work as the leading cause of their stress: 76%
- Reported lying awake at night due to stress: 48%
As you can see, worrying and stress affect people in different ways, and health problems can ensue if one doesn’t employ stress relief techniques. Below, we will go over exactly how worrying can lower your immune system, and ways you can combat it.
Here’s how worrying lowers your immune system:
Worrying is using your imagination to create something you don’t want. -Abraham Hicks
Since our bodies evolved to examine our environments for threats, our modern world provides an abundance of stimuli that triggers this response. Our fight-or-flight response exists so that we have adrenaline pumping through us to make a fast decision about how to respond to a threat. However, in the modern world, this system goes awry since our bodies have to maintain a constant alert state so we can get through our days. This extreme taxation on our central nervous system causes our immunity to decline over time.
Our minds and bodies have an intricate connection to each other, so when one of them becomes imbalanced, it causes the other to experience problems. Dr. Esther Sternberg, Professor of Medicine and Founding Research Director for the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona at Tucson, researches this topic extensively. Her studies have included the connection between the central nervous system and the immune system as well as how immune molecules in the blood can impact our emotions.
In her best-selling book, The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, she examines how our emotions can either wreak havoc or create balance in our physical health.
How stress can predict the likelihood of developing diseases
Sternberg says that the same parts of the brain the control our response to stress play a role in the ability to resist diseases such as arthritis or cancer. These parts of the brain also play a role in the development of depression, which may explain why people with inflammatory illnesses develop depressive symptoms over time.
While feelings and emotions don’t directly cause disease, the biological mechanisms underlying them may contribute to the development of diseases. Scientists have shown that worrying and the likelihood of developing disease begin in the same pathways in the brain, so being predisposed to mental illness may lead to a physical ailment, and vice versa.
Sternberg went on to say that scientists have begun to study how memories can control our hormonal stress response. Negative emotions created by the memories can disrupt the immune system and lead to diseases such as arthritis and cancer. They have also begun to study how signals from the immune system can affect the brain and the emotional responses it controls.
How our modern world can affect our stress response
In our overstimulating modern world, we get exposed to thousands of different stimuli each day. These can trigger either a positive or negative response depending upon a complex set of factors.
These variables include our current physical and mental health, home environment, financial status, stress, etc. Even our thoughts can trigger positive or negative emotions. So we must deal with internal stimuli along with whatever we come in contact with within the physical world.
Our memories also play a role in our mood, as we discussed above. Depending on if we have positive or negative memories in our psyche, this will trigger a response in the brain that can affect physical health. For example, when you have positive thoughts, you may notice you feel peaceful, calm, and alert. Negative thoughts may trigger reactions such as a state of hyperawareness, sweating, heart palpitations, etc.
How memories affect our emotions
Our moods can change rapidly depending on the stimuli we come in contact with. Memories buried deep in our minds can also make our moods fluctuate. Even hearing a song on the radio that triggers a bad memory can lower our mood. And in turn, it negatively impacts our immune system. The sensory inputs that remind us of the memory cause a response in the brain where we not only process the current stimuli, but also the feeling we had when we came in contact with the memory.
These memories have strong ties to our emotions, processed in different parts of the brain: the amygdala for fear and the nucleus accumbens for pleasure. The emotional parts of the brain have linked by nerve pathways to the sensory parts of the brain, the frontal lobe, and the hippocampus, which help process memories. Our memories can affect how we respond to stress. Good stress causes us to take action while bad stress can cause us to remain stuck in fear and uncertainty.
What happens in the brain when you get stressed
“As soon as the stressful event occurs, it triggers the release of the cascade of hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal hormones — the brain’s stress response. It also triggers the adrenal glands to release epinephrine or adrenaline, and the sympathetic nerves to squirt out the adrenaline-like chemical norepinephrine all over the body: nerves that wire the heart, and gut, and skin.
So, the heart is driven to beat faster, the fine hairs of your skin stand up, you sweat, you may feel nausea or the urge to defecate. But your attention is focused, your vision becomes crystal clear, a surge of power helps you run — these same chemicals released from nerves make blood flow to your muscles, preparing you to sprint.
…if you prolong the stress, by being unable to control it or by making it too potent or long-lived, and these hormones and chemicals still continue to pump out from nerves and glands, then the same molecules that mobilized you for the short-haul now debilitate you.”
Here’s how chronic stress lowers the immune system
The central nervous system and the stress response react to stimuli instantly. However, the immune system processes things much slower, in a matter of hours or days. It takes a lot longer than a few minutes for immune cells to mobilize against possible invaders. So short-lived stress won’t impact the immune system very much. However, long-term, chronic worrying lowers the immune system’s defenses, so when you do get sick, it will take your body much longer to recover.
Stress impairs the immune system because when the body lives in a state of chronic fear, it can’t do its job to protect you. The body wasn’t designed to remain on alert 24/7 for threats; it needs rest so it can recover for the next impending threat. In the modern world, if we don’t have stress management, our bodies get exposed to an onslaught of stimuli. The chaos we experience from day to day can weaken our immunity if we already have a lot of stress.