Stress and the effects it can have on your immune system
Stress affects different people in different ways, and we all have a different ability to cope with it depending on our genetics, early life events, personality and social and economic circumstances.1
According to the Mental Health Foundation, stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure.
What triggers stress?
No two people are the same and situations that one person might find stressful may not be particularly bothersome to someone else. There are a few situations that the vast majority of people would understandably feel stressed by though – a bereavement, illness personally or of a friend or family member, the loss of a job, moving to a new house and money problems are some of the more common ones.
How to recognise stress
While we might be able to recognise when we are feeling stressed, it’s not always that obvious. Signs to look for include negative feelings such as anxiety, fear, anger, depression, irritability or frustration. It can be easier to recognise these symptoms in others than it is in yourself, so rather than thinking of them as emotions, perhaps consider them as behaviours. Are you more tearful than usual? Do you find yourself snapping at others? Are you having difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep or waking up? Stress can lead to physical symptoms too, such as headaches, nausea or indigestion, sweating, heart palpitations and general aches and pains.2
The effect of stress on your immune system
The immune system is important as it protects us from disease-causing microorganisms and other harmful materials. There have been studies on the effect of stress on our physiological health and the immune system for decades, with the general consensus based on multiple studies being that people under stress are more likely to have an impaired immune system and, as a result, suffer from more frequent illnesses.3 Further studies have shown that stress mediators can actually pass through the blood-brain barrier and exert their effects on the immune system which can present itself in a variety of ways, from catching colds more frequently, to headaches, decreased energy and digestive issues.4
What to do if you feel overwhelmed
The first step in dealing with stress is simply recognising that stress is a problem for you and connecting the way you are feeling physically and mentally with the pressures you are faced with. Some of these pressures might be unavoidable, but if there is a way of removing or reducing them, you should try to do that. Practical solutions might include stepping away from screens an hour earlier to help you sleep better, for example.
Review your lifestyle. Are you taking on too much? You don’t have to agree to everything. While it’s important to try and recognise if you are becoming withdrawn, it’s also important for good stress management to know that you can say no to social events if you feel like you need some down time.
Build supportive relationships with people you can rely on. Friends and family are often the first step in offering support to help you deal with stress, but if you don’t have these nearby, it can be a good idea to join a social group to try to expand your network and meet new people. Perhaps there’s a walking group in the area, for example.
Finally, even if it doesn’t come naturally to you, try to talk through the stress you are feeling with someone. If you don’t have supportive relationships in your life, there’s no shame in seeking professional help. Even if you feel alone, and like you are the only person feeling this way, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England concluded that 1 in 6 adults will experience depression, anxiety or problems relating to stress at any one time.5 There is help out there for dealing with stress and it’s always better to seek it than to struggle alone.