For my entire career, I’ve been teaching people how to deal with the stress of minor challenges like a traffic jam, a missed deadline, an angry boss or an annoying coworker. These are all situations where we mistake a “perceived threat” for a real one. These perceived threats seem almost silly now in comparison to the very real threats we are facing with Covid19.
Unlike before, when the stressors we faced were episodic, now our stress has, for many people, become chronic. If we don’t do something soon about our ever-increasing levels of stress, we are going to be putting our health at risk. Not only can chronic stress make us sick, it can also KEEP us from staying well.
Sheldon Cohen, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has spent his entire career studying the effect of psychological stress and social support on immunity and susceptibility to infectious disease. His studies and hundreds of other studies like his, have proven that chronic stress lowers our body’s ability to fight off viruses and other pathogens that the body might encounter through cuts, scrapes, human contact and simply breathing the air.
Just because we are exposed to a virus, doesn’t mean we will get sick. A healthy immune system will fight off the invaders with killer T cell and B cells that can fend off a cold virus, without us ever knowing we had it. Chronic stress weakens our immune system and makes us more vulnerable to these invaders. For various reasons, which we will explain below, stress turns your immune system functioning down. Doctors and researchers call this immunosuppression. Obviously, during this Covid19 crisis, we want our immune systems to be functioning at peak levels. Here are five measures that you can help you do that:
Lower stress. The immune system gets an initial boost during acute (short-lived) episodes of stress. After that initial boost, levels drop. According to stress expert, Dr. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University: “Sustained major stressors drive immune system function down to 40 to 70% below baseline.” When this happens often enough, the immune system can become dysregulated, and no longer functions properly. Lowering stress with simple techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and visualization (as well as the suggestions below) gives the immune system a respite from stress and can prevent it from becoming dysregulated.
Exercise. According to author and Harvard Medical School Professor, John Ratey, M.D., “stress and age depress the immune system, while exercise strengthens it.” Right up until I started exercising vigorously on most days, about 15 years ago, I would get three or four really nasty colds a year that would last 4-6 weeks from start to finish. Now I get 1 cold about every other year and each one lasts a week or two at the most. I attribute this improved immunity to regular exercise. (Keep in mind, this is just my experience.)
Take a cold shower. There actually is some data to suggest that taking a 2-minute cold shower really does boost your immune system. It’s hard to prove this beyond a shadow of a doubt, but there is one study involving thousands of participants, half of which took a cold shower every morning and the other half didn’t. The group that took the cold shower had 30% less sick days than the group that didn’t.
Go to bed early. According to William Dement, M.D., author of the book The Promise of Sleep, “Quality of sleep before infection is statistically significant in determining whether someone gets a cold.” There’s definitely a connection between chronic insomnia and immune system dysfunction.
Meditate. Two groups of 25 people got a flu shot. One group had just taken a mindfulness meditation class while the other group had not. The meditators immune system reaction to the flu shot was significantly stronger than the control group who hadn’t meditated.
So now you have some ideas for how to attack this problem of Covid19 from the inside out. Everything we’ve outlined above, will also help you lower stress. In this way you will have applied a one-two punch to the virus by increasing your immune-system functioning and decreasing your stress.