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With a pandemic virus swirling in the air, fear has fallen like a blanket over our country. As the numbers of cases appear to increase, the panic and frenzy over what we can do to protect ourselves intensifies. But it turns out that the panic itself is making us more susceptible to the virus.
Every day we’re given new instructions – wash your hands, wear a mask, stay home if you have even the slightest sniffle or cough. But no one is talking about taking care of our mental and emotional health during this prolonged and difficult time. The truth is, your emotional health and your immune health are intertwined, and you need both in tip-top shape to combat this virus.
When a strong emotion like fear dominates our consciousness, like it does during a pandemic, financial crisis, or relationship stress, it takes a toll on our health overall. Our bodies work overtime pumping out cortisol, our primary stress hormone, so we can cope with the onslaught of tension and fear. As this increase in cortisol becomes chronic, it weakens the immune system.
Fear is a basic survival mechanism, so the release of cortisol is designed to slow or shut down body functions that aren’t needed for survival, and sharpen those that can help us survive. It puts us into sympathetic nervous system dominance, also called “fight or flight.” During this time, immunity is suppressed, digestion slows, libido wanes, eyesight sharpens, heart rate increases, and blood flow is directed to muscles and the brain so we can run quickly if needed.
Regardless of whether you ever contract the virus or not, the fear of it is already affecting your health and triggering inflammation. Over time, this chronic heightened state of awareness with the accompanying rise in cortisol causes problems with immunity, cardiovascular damage, digestion, and fertility. Memory wanes, the brain has trouble responding to non-verbal cues and emotions, and mental health is drained, resulting in fatigue, depression, and PTSD. Living in constant fear can age you prematurely or even leave you incapacitated.
Studies have been done for decades that look at the effect that long-term stress like we’re experiencing with this pandemic affects overall immunity. When it comes to this coronavirus, we are looking at two different types of immunity as being important for protection. Cell-mediated immunity is the type we normally think of, where we are exposed to the virus either naturally or through a vaccine, and memory immune cells are created that help our bodies later to “remember” the infection and fight it before it can run rampant.
The other type of immunity that is just as important but rarely spoken of is humoral immunity. This immunity is generated from plasma cells in the bone marrow, and is activated by repeated exposure to the virus. This type of immunity is much harder to measure than cellular immunity is, but is equally as valuable.
Stressors that are short-lived tend to suppress cellular immunity while preserving humoral immunity, but long-term stressors – like a pandemic – suppress both types of immunity. This means that not only are you more susceptible to catching it and contributing to its spread, but it’s also more difficult for you to fight it off and develop enough lasting antibodies to maintain immunity, which is what some studies are starting to show.
Health can decline so quickly under conditions of chronic stress, but there are things you can do to keep cool and protect yourself. First, you need to understand that there’s a reason this stress response is nicknamed “fight or flight.” Your body reacts to an emotional threat the same way it reacts to a physical one, and gets everything ready to either stay and fight or run away. So one of the keys to combating the negative effects of the stress response are in its very name.
One of the best things we can do when under chronic stress is to get regular aerobic exercise. This is because physiologically it’s the same as running from a threat, so your body sees that its job is done and is able to calm down, lower cortisol, and rest. This doesn’t mean you need to go out and run a marathon – just simple cardio at a moderate intensity for 30 minutes each day is enough. You should be able to talk through the exercise and not run out of breath.
Equally as important as calming the body’s stress response is to calm your mind. We can’t change the stress of living through a pandemic, but we can change how we respond to that stress. Just like a boat only sinks when the water surrounding it gets inside of it, you will only feel the stress when you internalize all the fear that’s going on around you. Techniques that center your focus like breathing exercises, meditation, and visualization, can calm your stress response and keep you from reacting with fear.
For many of us, the chronic stress of everyday life was already taking its toll before the pandemic even started. This means we went into this with our immunity already challenged and may need more support to rebuild and replenish our immune systems. Here are my top 3 supplements for doing just that.
There are hundreds of studies being carried out each day on this pandemic virus and I have every confidence we will have the answers we need to end it soon. Until then, I will continue to keep you updated as innovative new advancements and information comes to light. In the meantime, do everything you can to stay calm and protect your immunity.