4 easy steps to better manage stress for a healthier immune system.
America has never been more stressed out. Does that include you?
Whether it stems from confusion and conflict arising from COVID-19, frustration over how the government handled the pandemic, or the rise of addictive technologies which breed distraction and division, it's becoming increasingly clear that people in our modern world are struggling to manage stress.
A little stress is good thing. The "fight or flight" branch of the nervous system, which evolved to serve us in circumstances of acute threat (think running from a sabre-toothed tiger on the savannah) helps keep you alert – and gives you that jolt of energy when you need it. While acute stress helps us, chronic stress can detrimentally affect your health.
4 Steps to Reduce Stress
Practice 1: Learn to Meditate
Do you ever feel like wherever you are, you're not fully present? When you're working, are you stressed about your relationship? When you're with your partner, are you stressed about work? Is your mind stuck in a loop of thoughts about the past or the future?
Welcome to the club.
A solution to chronic stress is mindfulness meditation, a time-tested practice that teaches you how to pay attention to the present moment . In fact, researchers once used MRI technology to scan the brains of monks while they meditated in real-time. While meditating, an area of the brain called the default mode network (DMN) actually goes offline . This means that you CAN use mindfulness to clear your mind, reduce stress and help strengthen your immune response.
Practice 2: Optimize Sleep
When people are sleep deprived, they are not great company. They can't think clearly, and ordinarily manageable tasks stress them out,
Can you relate?
Neuroscientist Matthew Walker's research team investigated the neurophysiological basis for this phenomenon by scanning the brains of sleep-deprived people while they viewed emotionally charged images.
In comparison to a group that was given a full night's rest, sleep-deprived individuals responded to stressful stimuli with a 60% increase in activity of a brain region called the amygdala . The amygdala mediates fear, anxiety, and rage.
Practice 3: Manage Screen Addiction
One feature of our stressed-out world that is completely unique to the 21st century is the pervasive presence of the smartphone. Prior to its invention, long stretches of our day were void of inputs from other minds, allowing us to focus single-mindedly on whatever we were doing or to simply reflect and process the events of our day.
We now live in a world in which we're always "on".
A recent survey of 667 iPhone users showed that on average, people picked up their phones 99 times, spending a total of five hours and 42 minutes on the device, daily . This is the equivalent of a full-time workweek spent scrolling through apps like TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram.
This uniquely powerful drain on our time and attention – independent of the COVID-19 pandemic, or anything else – may be amplifying our stress crisis.
For now, here are some tips that you can introduce today:
- Delete social media apps from your phone, reserving use to your laptop. This will make your social media use more intentional, preventing you from reflexively scrolling while in line at the store, or at dinner with friends.
- Turn off notifications. The iPhone has something called Focus Mode, which you can even program to only allow calls from specific people in case of emergency, and hides notifications from apps until you turn off Focus Mode.
- Change your phone's color scheme to grayscale. The colors used to represent social media notifications (typically red to mimic the look of ripe fruit, believe it or not) are designed to prey on our primordial instincts to respond emotionally to certain colors. Often, this setting is found in a phone's Accessibility settings.
- Schedule time blocks for mindless scrolling. Rather than allowing it to enter your life haphazardly, schedule time to scroll, once or twice a week, in a more intentional way.
- Commit to a clean break for a full week – the distance from technology can a helpful way to re-evaluate your relationship with it.
Practice 4: Set Boundaries on Your Time
We each have a finite bandwidth of mental and physical capacity, and it's important to build a life that respects this.
The all-important question to ask yourself is “How do I decide what deserves my attention”? Optimizing your filter for task selection requires serious reflection on your values and priorities. This can be slow and painful work. Once you've done it, have a hard discussion with your boss about unreasonable productivity standards.
We all, of course, have certain draining responsibilities that are out of our control. But it's worth deeply re-examining how you're spending your time with fresh eyes.
You can meditate every single day, optimize your sleep routine, and remedy your relationship with technology, but if you don't set clear boundaries, your efforts will go nowhere, fast. Your immune response will suffer, and you will be more susceptible to illness.
The bottom line
Stress permeates into every area of life including your health. Like a police force, our immune system deals with invaders of our bodies to protect our bodies from getting sick. Our immune system is comprised of billions of white blood cells (lymphocytes and phagocytes) that fight off bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells in the body. But how is our immune system affected by stress?
Many factors contribute to stress. But whatever the cause, stress creates a hormone in your body called cortisol – and it can suppress your immune system’s effectiveness in fighting off invaders by lowering the number of lymphocytes present in the blood and interfering with normal white blood cell communication .
No matter what, stress is an inevitable part of life – so it’s crucial that you are taking care of your immune system daily in addition to these stress-detoxifying practices.
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 Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 57(1), 35-43.
 Brewer, J. A., Worhunsky, P. D., Gray, J. R., Tang, Y. Y., Weber, J., & Kober, H. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(50), 20254-20259.
 Yoo, S. S., Gujar, N., Hu, P., Jolesz, F. A., & Walker, M. P. (2007). The human emotional brain without sleep—a prefrontal amygdala disconnect. Current Biology, 17(20), R877-R878.