The Science Behind How Stress and Unnecessary Fears Weaken Your Immune System
Your brain does not know the difference between a real threat and one that you imagine to be present. Your body feels the effect of that stress regardless.
A state of health means that your body can fully focus on its regular maintenance and repair functions. When your mind is overcome with fearful thoughts, your body must redirect its energy elsewhere. It focuses on figuring out how to run away from or fight the threat — whether that threat is a tiger around the bush or a thought in your mind.
You already know that stress is bad for your health. But are you aware of how your fearful thoughts translate into toxic chemicals that perpetuate even further stress?
CONSTANTLY MONITORING FOR THREATS
Our brains are wired for survival. The brain’s motto is “Always avoid threats first. Pursue opportunities only when no threats are present.”
If we are at risk of being attacked by a tiger, we better be prepared. Why expend precious energy on healing wounds when our bodies need to prepare to run as fast as we can?
When your body perceives a threat, whether real or imagined, the amygdala sounds the alarm. This starts a cascade of processes that prepare you to either fight or run away from the threat (the fight-or-flight response).
Epinephrine and cortisol come rushing into your bloodstream. Your heart beats faster, your breathing quickens, blood rushes to your limbs. Your muscles tense up, your senses sharpen, and you feel hyped up enough to take action. This is exactly what you need when you are actually facing a threat — a quick boost of energy to deal with what’s in front of you.
Many people feel a level of background stress even when their life is actually in good order. A constant undercurrent of fear leads to conditions that are known as anxiety, depression, and a host of other mental and psychological ailments. Outside sources will not be a permanent answer unless the internal reason for the stress is addressed. The brain wants to resolve the problem in your mind — even if there is no “real” problem behind it.
ALWAYS REVVED UP
When that stream of stress runs in the background, the body is on high alert for that perceived threat. Oftentimes, the threat is nowhere to be found but in our minds. Negative thoughts about the past or worries about the future trigger pain or discomfort. The body is looking for a way to resolve that threat. When we don’t step up to the plate and take action, the body stays revved up, ready to flee or fight. Like the motor of a car idling for too long, this is not the body’s optimal state. We have our pedal both on the gas and the brake — the car can’t move.
When the body is bathed in the chemicals of stress, we “feel” the emotion we associate with fear. Our negative thinking is then perpetuated because the fear feels physically real in our bodies. These fear-based thoughts cause more stress chemicals to be released. The body is still trying to prepare for whatever danger your mind is focusing upon.
If you don’t utilize that quick boost of energy, the chemicals of fear will keep circulating around your system. The presence of these chemicals means there is less room for tonic chemicals — those that serve your well-being. This affects every aspect of your physical and emotional performance.
When the body is too busy revving up to fight a potential tiger, it can’t focus on growth, repair, or the healing of wounds. One of the side effects is that your immune system is weakened. Outside threats (such as viruses) will still be dealt with — but they are in line waiting for the toxic chemicals coming from your own-fear based thoughts to be flushed out first.
The HeartMath Institute has done tremendous amounts of research on the effect of emotions on our individual and global health. Below is an excerpt from one of their research papers, highlighting the effect of emotions on our bodies:
“HeartMath research has demonstrated that different patterns of heart activity (which accompany different emotional states) have distinct effects on cognitive and emotional function. During stress and negative emotions, when the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered, the corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive functions. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions. (This helps explain why we may often act impulsively and unwisely when we’re under stress.) The heart’s input to the brain during stressful or negative emotions also has a profound effect on the brain’s emotional processes — actually serving to reinforce the emotional experience of stress. In contrast, the more ordered and stable pattern of the heart’s input to the brain during positive emotional states has the opposite effect — it facilitates cognitive function and reinforces positive feelings and emotional stability. This means that learning to generate increased heart rhythm coherence, by sustaining positive emotions, not only benefits the entire body, but also profoundly affects how we perceive, think, feel, and perform.” https://www.heartmath.com/science/
So how do you get rid of toxic stress chemicals?
1. Take Action Is there anything you can do right now to take action towards reducing the potential threat you think you’re facing? If so, then do it. Take whatever step you need to in order to ease your mind. Face what you need to deal with to close the disequilibrium in your brain.
2. Change your Thinking If there is nothing you can do about the situation at this moment, focus your mental energy elsewhere. If you can take action later, write it down or set a reminder on your phone for that time. But right now, get back to the present. Become aware of being aware.
Everything is ok right this minute — you are alive. You probably have a roof over your head. You probably know where your next meal is going to come from. You are loved, cared for, and supported by more people than you can think of.
Use the energy of your mind to focus on something good about the present moment or to take action towards your own future growth.
Value yourself enough to care about the thoughts you think. Value yourself enough to stay empowered.
You are too important to be held back by stress and its toxic chemicals. If you can’t do it for yourself, do it for those who you care about — and for the community.
Your stresses and joys are contagious — which one will you spread?