With change and situations out of our control comes stress. It's a natural response during crisis, and the novel coronavirus pandemic is no different.
As the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 keep mounting, so do our anxieties. And unfortunately, stress can come with some serious consequences for the immune system.
"When we're chronically stressed, we stay in red-alert mode practically full time," Tanya Peterson, certified counselor and author of The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal: A Creative Way to Stop Freaking Out, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "This harms our immune system by either weakening it so we are less effective at fighting off viruses or sending it into overdrive, potentially leading to serious autoimmune conditions."
The good news? A little bit of gratitude can go a long way in combatting the effects of stress.
Read on for more on the connection between stress and immunity and the five-minute gratitude practice that can help you recenter.
How Stress Affects the Immune System
Psychological stress leads to high cortisol levels, which impairs the immune system's functions, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Cortisol, the hormone produced in response to stress, is released by the adrenal glands to manage acute stressors, explains Brandi Moore, NMD, a naturopathic physician with Reclaim Integrative Health in Scottsdale, Arizona.
"When used this way, it works to support immune function by decreasing inflammation," Moore says. "However, when a person is chronically stressed, cortisol can suppress the immune system, making them more susceptible to becoming sick."
Chronic stressors — such as financial problems, caregiving or worries related to the current coronavirus pandemic — can elicit a "threat response," according to the University of California. That response physiologically wears out our cells, making it more difficult for our bodies to recover.
Many studies agree. Practicing gratitude, which means acknowledging the goodness in life, was linked to significantly lowered levels of stress in an October 2018 study in Psychology, Health & Medicine.
A February 2019 study in Clinical Psychological Science also linked a positive mindset to a stronger immune system.
"When an individual practices gratitude, it shifts their perspective, giving them a more positive outlook on life and decreasing stress," Moore says.
Journaling as a Tool Against Stress
Being grateful and having a positive outlook may be easier said than done, especially when you're feeling overwhelmed by stress.
"Thankfully, we're not at the mercy of our stress response but can actually control it," Peterson says. "Journaling is a powerful tool to help us intentionally slow our thoughts and change our perspective."
Moore also recommends journaling to her patients. It's a simple idea: Write down how you feel or what you're thinking. And to get the most out of it, have a clear goal in mind for why you're doing it.
"You can change anxious thoughts to grateful thoughts, which pulls your attention away from what's wrong and onto what's right," Peterson says. "When you journal, you not only rein in your racing thoughts but you guide them and develop new perspectives."
It's especially helpful to focus on the mind-body connection, she adds. "What happens to one manifests in the other," she says. "When your body is stiff and sore, what is often going on in your mind? How do your beliefs affect you physically?"
A 5-Minute Gratitude Exercise to Reduce Stress
- Start with a breathing exercise called four-square breathing, Moore says. "You simply inhale for four seconds, hold the breath for four seconds, exhale for four seconds and hold for four seconds."
- Repeat this three times.
- "This exercise engages the parasympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for rest and relaxation," she explains.
- Then, write down three things you are grateful for and why.
- Keep it up: Spend a few minutes a day exercising gratitude. You (and your immune system) will be thankful you did.
- Psychology, Health & Medicine: "Psychosocial health mediates the gratitude-physical health link."
- Clinical Psychological Science: "Soothing Your Heart and Feeling Connected: A New Experimental Paradigm to Study the Benefits of Self-Compassion"
- University of California: "How to live well with stress — even in the coronavirus era"
- Mayo Clinic: "Chronic stress puts your health at risk"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.