Stress and the immune system

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Stressed out and wondering whether that’s why you can’t shake that cold – or why you keep catching them? Good question, let's look at the facts.

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How does stress affect the immune system?

Stressed out and wondering whether that’s why you can’t shake that cold – or why you keep catching them? Good question. 

It turns out you are more susceptible to developing a cold when you’re stressed, thanks to the way stress affects your immune system .  

The first thing to know is that the symptoms you experience when you get a cold aren’t caused by the virus itself. They’re actually a result of the inflammatory response that’s triggered as part of the body’s efforts to fight infection  when a virus is present. And it’s exactly the same story with the flu . 

The bigger your body’s inflammatory response is to a cold- or flu-causing virus, the more likely you are to experience symptoms of a cold  or flu – things like a cough, sore throat and feeling tired  . And it’s your immune system that’s responsible for regulating this inflammation .

So, what’s stress got to do with all this? As well as affecting other systems in your body, research shows that in stressful times, cells of the immune system produce higher levels of inflammation. It means that the more stressed you are, the more likely you are to develop symptoms when you’re exposed to a virus . 

How to tell if you’re stressed

Symptoms of stress can be both physical and psychological, and while they can vary from person to person, there are a few things you can look out for .

On top of a weakened immune system, physical symptoms include finding it difficult to sleep, frequent headaches, muscular aches and pains, stomach upset and feeling tired all the time. You might also find yourself tensing your jaw or grinding your teeth .

Psychological symptoms include feeling irritable, worried or short tempered, as well as having difficulties concentrating or remembering things and just feeling generally overwhelmed .

What are some stress management strategies?

More stress-relief techniques

The good news is there are things you can do to dial your stress levels down . 

On top of identifying what’s causing you stress and, if possible, problem solving to see if you can change those situations, you can also make a conscious effort to notice and change the way you talk to yourself. 

Try switching from negative, unhelpful self-talk – such as ‘I can’t cope’ or ‘I’ll never get this done’ – to helpful, calming self-talk, like ‘I am coping really well considering everything I have to do’ .

Other stress-management techniques include:
  • Practising relaxation
    This could be meditation or mindfulness. When practised regularly, relaxation techniques can help to reduce stress levels by encouraging the nervous system to settle and calm
  • Getting organised 
    Research shows that good time management can help to lower stress levels. Prioritising tasks, writing to-do lists, setting reminders and delegating things where possible, can help you manage your time more efficiently and effectively
  • Exercising regularly
    Physical activity not only helps to reduce stress, it can improve the quality of your sleep, something that can be interrupted when you’re stressed – and which itself plays a key role in a healthy immune system and how likely you are – or aren’t – to catch a cold
Feel like you could benefit from a more structured stress management plan? Take part in our three-week ‘3 ways to stress less’ action plan.

Action plan | 3 ways to stress less