Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Stress and the Immune System

The Impact of Stress on the Immune System

Chronic and acute stress place high demands on the immune system. During a stress response the immune system decreases its activity, which may result in susceptibility to disease and ill health. Although this decrease in immune function saves energy, the suppression of the immune system caused by the stress response can have deleterious effects on the individual (Dhabar, 2011). The number of protective cells in the immune system decreases during stress responses and when this response is chronic, the body is left with less defensive intrinsic mechanisms for fighting infection and disease (Dhabar, 2011).


Stress weakens the immune system, although understanding this intricate sequence of events is a complex process that must be understood within the scope of a variety of individualized factors (American Psychological Association (APA), 2006). Dhabhar (2011) explained the effects of leukocyte dysregulation, which has a powerful effect on the immune system. Leukocytes are a white blood cell, and this primary part of the immune system is responsible for defending the body against pathogens. One type of leukocyte, natural killer cells, helps the body kill off malfunctioning, diseased cells or cells that have become cancerous. Prolonged dysregulation of this part of the immune system can cause immunosuppression, obesity, atherosclerosis, and hypertension (Katz, Sprang, & Cooke, 2012). For example, children who contend with chronically suboptimal conditions (under considerable stress during childhood) are more prone to these illnesses because of the dysregulation of leukocytes (Katz, Sprang, & Cooke, 2012). Furthermore, it can lead to increased mortality later in life as well as suboptimal cognitive functioning (Seeman, McEwen, Rowe, & Singer, 2001). Adults with immune system dysregulation are subject to a number of deleterious health effects, such as chronic illness and susceptibility to acute and infectious disease and cancer (Dhabhar, 2011).

Stress-Reducing Behavioral Intervention

Managing stress can be as simple as spending time with good friends, because social interactions and social bonds help buffer the negative influences of stress (APA, 2006). In addition, negative or stressful personal relationships have been associated with the dysregulation of the immune system (Kiecolt-Glaser, McGuire, Robles, & Glaser, 2002), so time spent with friends rather than in stressful relationships is beneficial to one's health.

Exercise is a commonly known antidote to stress. Aerobic exercise is the most effective type of physical movement for the mediation of stress (Kelley, 2009). Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise causes the release of the body's endorphins, which mediate stress by helping the individual feel good. For an added bonus, exercising can be done in a natural environment with sunlight, which initiates deep relaxation (Kelley, 2009). Meditation is a stress reliever as well as yoga, which utilizes breathing techniques that are calming and stimulating to the central nervous system, which, in turn, decreases stress hormones. Equally potent is cognitive behavioral therapy in which focuses on an individual's perceptions. This type of therapy believes that perceptions, rather than situations cause thought processes (Corey, 2009). In the case of trying to diminish a stress response, it may be beneficial to reappraise the stress which may be causing an immune damaging stress response.


American Psychological Association. (2006). Stress weakens the immune system: Friends,
relaxation strengthen health. Retrieved from

Corey, G. (2009). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thompson Brooks/Cole.

Dhabhar, F. S. (2011). Effects of stress on immune function: Implications for immunoprotection
and immunopathology. In R. J. Contrada & A. Baum (Eds.), The handbook of stress science: Biology, psychology, and health (pp. 47–63). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

Katz, D., Sprang, G., & Cooke, C. (2012). The cost of chronic stress in childhood: understanding and applying the concept of allostatic load. Psychodynamic Psychiatry, 40(3), 469-480.

Kelley, D. (2009). The effects of exercise and diet on stress. Nutritional Perspectives: Journal Of The Council On Nutrition, 32(1), 37-39.

Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., McGuire, L. L., Robles, T. F., & Glaser, R. R. (2002). Psychoneuroimmunology: Psychological Influences on Immune Function and Health. Journal Of Consulting And Clinical Psychology, 70537-547.

Seeman, T. E., McEwen, B. S., Rowe, J. W., & Singer, B. H. (2001). Allostatic load as a marker of cumulative biological risk: MacArthur studies of successful aging. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 98, 4770-4775.

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