The immune system is a vital piece of the health puzzle. It acts as the body’s defense system and has three main functions: fight outside infections, neutralize harmful substances, and ward off non-infectious diseases. Within the immune system are cells, chemicals, and organs all working together to ensure your body is ready when something threatening occurs.
The immune system can be fickle, and many things can compromise its ability to do its job. Sometimes, a simple illness can throw the immune system out of sorts. Other times it can be an internal attack. This means that things you do regularly or specific things you experience can all affect how well your immune system functions. When looking at it from an emotional standpoint, how you feel daily greatly influences how ready your body will be when it needs to fight a cellular battle.
One emotion that affects immune function is anxiety. But what exactly is anxiety, and what role does it play in immunity? Read on to learn how anxiety can influence immune function.
In simple terms, anxiety is a feeling of anticipation. It is how the body primes itself for a future worry or concern. Our ancestors used anxiety as part of the stress response to prepare to deal with threats. The stress response—or fight or flight reaction—occurs when there is a perceived threat to safety. The physiological changes, such as an increased heart rate and tense muscles, get the body ready to either fight an oncoming threat or flee the situation for your safety.
In modern times, the need to be alert to possible threats isn’t the same as it once was – people are much safer today than they were in ancient times! This is why anxiety, or anxiety disorders, are more closely related to emotional experiences than the need to protect one’s physical safety. Today, anxiety can manifest when there is no true danger at all. When that happens, the body goes through physiological changes that prime it for danger even though there is no actual risk.
Similar to stress, the physical symptoms of anxiety often manifest the way they do because the body isn’t aware there is no threat. However, acute stress comes with symptoms that subside, while anxiety symptoms generally remain.
Anxiety triggers the stress response in the body. As mentioned above, this response determines the right course of action between fighting or fleeing. During high periods of stress, the body goes through various physiological changes. Certain hormones, including adrenaline, are released into the bloodstream. Your breathing and heart rate increases when the adrenaline increases. The body responds this way so that the brain can access more significant amounts of oxygen and react to the stressful situation appropriately.
When anxiety sets off this response and the stress hormones are released, the immune system gets a little boost. Research shows that bouts of short-term stress can activate innate and adaptive immune responses. The innate immune response acts as a dispatcher to the danger call, and the adaptive is the first responder. Specific immune cells are produced to prepare for battle. This increase in immune activity protects you during periods of stress.
While anxiety initiating the stress response may seem helpful to immunity, however, it applies only if the stress and anxiety are short-term. The body and the immune system return to normal when the short-term stress begins to subside. Long-term anxiety and stress are entirely different stories.
While short-term stress boosts the immune system, the opposite is true for long-term anxiety and stress. Research has found that when a person experiences long-term anxiety, the innate and adaptive immune responses become compromised. That is because chronic stress and anxiety can cause the immune system to become dysregulated. A dysregulated immune system responds to nonexistent threats and cannot fight appropriately if an invader shows up.
What’s more is that cytokines – small proteins that control the growth and action of immune cells – become altered by chronic anxiety and stress. If cytokines are not functioning as they should, the preparedness of other immune cells suffers along with them.
Other issues that the immune system faces because of anxiety include:
With all these changes caused by anxiety, the immune system will not be able to fight the good fight against pathogens or internal bodily threats. If the body is always anxious or stressed, it is left wide open and unprotected without a properly functioning immune system. That’s why it’s important to seek treatment for anxiety symptoms before they get out of hand.
Featured image by Joice Kelly on Unsplash