How stress attacks the immune system

People who are under constant stress get sick more quickly and recover more slowly.

A divorce or unemployment can make you susceptible to pathogens, as can tons of overtime and constant trouble with your boss. Short periods of stress, on the other hand, have the opposite effect: they can even boost the immune system.

What is stress?

Behind the phenomenon of stress there is originally a vital mechanism that the brain triggers and prepares people for threatening situations. It prepares the body for fight or flight. The stressful stimuli cause stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to rise in the blood within a very short time. Once the situation is over, the tension and excitement subside. Recovery and balancing phases follow. If this balance is no longer right, stress becomes harmful.

Psyche and immune system: mutual relationship

“There is a mutual influence between the central nervous system, psyche and immune system,” explains Professor Norbert Müller from the German Society for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Neurology (DGPPN) in Berlin.

“This means that a person’s mental state affects their immune system.” Those who suffer from chronic stress are therefore often susceptible to infections. “On the other hand, physical illnesses can also lead to psychological symptoms of illness,” says the expert.

Stress hormones block the immune response

Long-term stress caused by overwork at work or before exams, family problems, traumatic experiences and other long-term psychological stress results in a decline in certain substances in the immune system that help defend against pathogens. At the same time, stress hormones are released, which suppress the organism’s appropriate immune response.

“The organism can then no longer fight pathogens with the necessary effectiveness,” says Müller. “In addition to an increased susceptibility to infection, it can also promote the development of new diseases and a worsening of existing diseases. For example, psychological stress often worsens chronic inflammatory diseases such as asthma, arthritis and cardiovascular diseases.”

Short periods of stress can boost the immune system

The negative effects of stress on the immune system occur when the stress-inducing factors occur over a longer period of time and are perceived as stressful and threatening by those affected. In contrast, acute stress that only lasts a few minutes to hours can actually increase the activity of the immune system.

Examples of this include suddenly occurring dangerous situations, but also the skydiver immediately before his first jump or the football coach before the game kicks off. Here, the values for certain immune cells even rise sharply in the acute stressful situation, only to fall quickly again a short time later.

Eu-Stress – the good stress

Scientists differentiate between two different types of stress: Distress and Eu stress. Dis-stress refers to negative stress and is often accompanied by unpleasant stress reactions and stress symptoms. There is also positive or good stress, also called Eu-stress. This type of stress is not accompanied by excessive demands and is not perceived as burdensome. Eu-stress usually occurs when you do something with a lot of fun and enthusiasm. Here stress can even promote performance.

How can chronic stress be prevented?

“The effects of stress on the immune system depend on how long the situation lasts and how it is subjectively perceived by the person affected,” explains Müller. If you succeed in preventing chronic stress or quickly reducing stressful stress, this also has a positive effect on the immune system.

Any form of exercise and strengthening of the muscles, for example through strength training, helps here, as muscle cells ensure a rapid breakdown of stress hormones and thus switch off their inhibitory function on the immune system.

There are also psychological factors that have a positive influence on the immune system. They include an optimistic outlook on life, higher self-esteem and good social relationships. “Good social contacts and support give recognition, self-confidence, security and the feeling of belonging to a group,” says Müller. Studies have shown that good social relationships have a stabilizing effect on the immune system in psychologically stressful situations.

Another important psychological influencing factor are positive feelings such as happiness, enthusiasm and gratitude. They have a beneficial effect on the effectiveness and regulation of the immune system and can even contribute to faster healing after injuries or operations.

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