There is no doubt we, as a globe, are in unprecedented times. With the spread of COVID-19, we have experienced the inability to purchase toilet paper and other groceries when needed, states implementing shelter-in-place orders, countries shutting down borders and global economies all but crashing. Currently, we are very limited in our ability to conduct normal activities and by all outward appearances, we are dealing with a global stress we may not have experienced in decades, if ever.
On the personal level, stress seems to be insurmountable. We have to create new routines. We have to stay inside and cannot go anywhere that is not essential travel. We love our families, but now we are all cooped up and are beginning to stress each other out! We have loved ones that are sick and unsure if it’s the common cold or the Coronavirus. Money is tight. Freedom is restricted. Stress at an all-time high.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states older people and those with underlying health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease and cancer are more likely to develop serious illness as a result of COVID-19. All of these diseases have something in common, they compromise the immune system. Something else that can severely compromise the immune system is STRESS! But guess what, destressing can actually BOOST your immune system!
So how does stress and destressing affect our immune system? When we are in a stress state, our brain signals the sympathetic nervous system, or fight or flight response. As a result, blood flow is redirected from our digestive tract to our extremities, our respiratory function is reduced (shallow breathing) and our immune system is compromised. During stress, our brain sends a signal to the endocrine system, which will release hormones to physically prepare us for an emergency response. In an article written by Andrew Gliszek, Ph.D. in Psychology Today, titled How Stress Affects the Immune System, he states some experts claim stress is responsible for 90% of all illnesses and diseases. Stress will flood the body with cortisol (also known as the stress hormone), which decreases inflammation, decreases white blood cell count, and NK cells (Cancer killing cells), increase tumor development and growth, and increases the rate of infection and tissue damage.
So if COVID-19 targets the immunocompromised, destressing could be the greatest protective measure.
Here are some ways to destress, initiate the parasympathetic nervous system and boost our immunity:
- Reduce caffeine intake. Caffeine has been shown to affect the body in various ways, to include increased production of cortisol. This can lead to irritability, weight gain, heart disease and diabetes. By reducing caffeine, you’ll also reduce the cortisol production, which will boost your immune system.
- Sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep can drastically reduce the signs and symptoms of stress. If you already have a hard time with sleep, set a routine. Create a routine with any combination of the following: take a warm bath, listen to white noise or soothing music, drink warm (decaf) tea, and meditation. I personally use the Calm app. This app has an abundance of guided meditations, as well as, music, stories and white noise to help you drift off to sleep.
- Intentional breathing. I personally utilize the 5-5-7 breathing technique. Inhale for 5 seconds, hold your breathe for 5 seconds, and exhale for 7 seconds with the natural pause at the end of the exhale. Practice this 10 times in a row. It will last for two to three minutes. This will send a signal to your brain stating you are calm, which will then signal your brain to engage the Parasympathetic Nervous system, or Rest and Restore system.
- Exercise. This can look differently to everybody. Exercise, simply put, is getting your body moving! Anything from taking a walk around the block, to doing push ups in your living room, to dusting off those old weights you have sitting in your basement. Just get moving. This will signal your body to release chemicals called endorphins, or the natural happy drug. It provides a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine (just a whole lot healthier).
- Declutter. Since we are stuck inside, why not clean house? I’m not talking about just straightening up the kitchen, but go through the kitchen cupboards and get rid of the items you haven’t used since you moved in 10 years ago! You’ll be surprised at how much better you feel when you’ve decluttered your living space.
So as we navigate through this global pandemic, it is vitally important for each of us to remain calm in the chaos. Just as Wayne Dyer once said, “You cannot always control what goes on outside. But you can always control what goes on inside.”