The Effects of Anxiety on our Immune System

Did you know anxiety disorder is the most common type of psychological disorder in Canada? In fact, more than three million Canadian adults (18 years of age or older) are affected by this disorder. The general symptoms of anxiety disorder may include persistent worrying, overthinking, indecisiveness or fear of making the wrong decision, inability to relax, and difficulty concentrating, to name a few. The physical body may present with signs and symptoms of fatigue, insomnia, tense and/or achy muscles, perfuse sweating, nausea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), headaches, migraines, and/or irritability. Having an anxiety disorder can have a major impact on your life. It can affect your ability to work and earn a living, impact your social life, limit recreation and/or personal interests (e.g., hobbies), and prevent you from taking vacations and spending time with loved ones. I was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) a few years ago and can attest to all of the above.

Plagued by the common cold virus a few times a year, low energy, stiff muscles, and sleepless nights were all signs my body was trying to communicate something was wrong. These were symptoms of an immune system that was compromised. I did not make the connection until one day a heaviness that began at the base of my neck started to make its way down my chest and both arms. I sat in a frozen state unable to move for what seemed an eternity. I later learned what I experienced was the result of an anxiety attack brought on by stress. It was this traumatic event that woke me up and made me realize I needed to adjust to my new landscape, my paradigm shift, and find a way to manage my anxiety. How are stress and our immune system linked? Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is the study of communication pathways that takes place and links the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems of the human body. The research completed on PNI confirms our feelings, beliefs, and thoughts influence our health and can be linked to disease.

Our body’s stress response process has three phases associated with it that include: 1) fight or flight; 2) resistance reaction and; 3) exhaustion. The fight or flight phase is capable of quickly mobilizing its resources for immediate action. It is a relatively short-lived response where our heart rate is increased, skin and visceral blood vessels constrict, blood vessels in our heart, lungs, brain, and skeletal muscles dilate, our spleen contracts, our liver converts glycogen into glucose for energy, our airways dilate for increased airflow, digestive activities decrease and our blood pressure elevates.

The resistance reaction stage, the second phase, compliments the fight or flight response and enables our bodies to continue the fight long after the first phase of the body’s stress response process has been engaged.  Think of a frightening movie that had you leap out of your chair with its well-timed scare. Once the initial shock has worn off, your body systems remain in their reactive state for a short while before they return to normal.

During the resistance reaction stage, hormones are released by the hypothalamus. These hormones include corticotropin releasing-hormone (CRH), growth hormone-releasing hormone (GHRH), and thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH). Corticotropin releasing-hormone stimulates our pituitary gland that secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH stimulates the adrenal cortex that increases the release of cortisol.  Small amounts of cortisol work to our advantage by providing the ability to remove ourselves from danger. However, if high levels of cortisol remain in the body, inflammatory chemicals known as cytokines are produced. Dr. Christiane Northrup notes cytokines can be associated with symptoms that include headaches, digestive issues, joint pain and swelling, weight gain, fibromyalgia, heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes.

If your immune system is thrown off balance by high cortisol levels and chronic stress, it becomes exhausted and its resources depleted. This is the final phase in the stress response process called exhaustion.

Anxiety disorder affects both the physical body and the mind. We are psycho-physical beings – the mind affects the body and the body affects the mind. So how does a person, who essentially has their fight or flight button stuck in the “ON” mode, manage their anxiety levels? We have the ability to utilize our subconscious mind and impress itself through our body chemistry to make positive changes in our lives and reduce our anxiety. We can do so using techniques that include energy therapy, visualizations, meditation, affirmations, and positive thought programming.

1 thought on “The Effects of Anxiety on our Immune System”

  1. Stephanie Bjorkman

    I can attest to this one as well, although not as extreme. When that flight or fight kicks in, you can really feel your body working overtime and are left feeling the exhaustion you spoke of. For me it would usually manifest a couple of days later in the form of a cold. How incredible to think that we have the power within ourselves to change these patterns and how our bodies react to certain situations. Great article. Thank you for sharing.

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