Stress Management Effects on Health How Does Stress Impact the Immune System? By Ariane Resnick, CNC Ariane Resnick, CNC Facebook Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity. Learn about our editorial process Updated on November 20, 2022 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS Medically reviewed by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Rachel Goldman, PhD FTOS, is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, wellness expert specializing in eating behaviors, stress management, and health behavior change. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Maria Korneeva/Moment/Getty Table of Contents View All Table of Contents Acute vs Chronic Stress Digestion Inflammation Infection Disease Illness Recovery Self-Car Strategies Stress is a natural response of our bodies. It's a physiological response to our environment when we receive the message that there may be a threat. While it's an important function, it can get out of control, and it can affect our lives in negative ways. You likely know that long term stress isn't healthy, and you may be aware that it affects your immune system, but you probably aren't familiar with the details of why stress is a problem for it. Ahead, we'll discuss why stress is important to manage for the sake of your nervous system, how it affects your body's ability to fight inflammation, infection, and disease, and what you can do to lower your stress levels. First, let's make sure we understand the different types of stress, and why one is a problem while the other isn't. Acute vs Chronic Stress There are many different types of stress, but for simplicity's sake we are going to discuss the differences between the two types we deal with the most. Acute Stress As the name implies, acute stress is stress that occurs on a short term basis. It's the term for in the moment occurrences that our bodies responds to with a "stress response," which is the physiological reaction to feeling threatened where your body pumps out stress hormone cortisol, as well as other hormones meant to help you survive. You may feel like your heart is beating loudly, or fast; your breathing can become shallow; and your blood pressure can increase. Acute stress is typically experienced as a fight or flight response. Chances are, you know this feeling well. Blood is sent to our muscles, so that if we need to engage in a physical fight, our chances of winning are improved, and if we need to run from a threat, we can go faster. Acute stress is necessary for survival, and provided your stress levels go down after a small emergency is over, it does not affect our immunity or our long term health. Chronic Stress This is the version of stress that affects immunity. Chronic stress is what happens when your body is in fight or flight mode so often, it gets stuck in that mode. This doesn't mean you feel stressed nonstop, only that you feel stressed often enough that your body doesn't have time to revert to its normal state of being before the next bout. Chronic stress can be caused by anything, from hating your job to a bad relationship to sitting in traffic for hours a day. It affects your mind and your body, because you are overproducing cortisol and other stress hormones to an extent that your body can't create enough "feel good" chemicals to balance those out. Chronic stress is what affects your immune system, so from here on out, when we're talking about stress, we mean the chronic version of it, not the acute one. Can Stress Cause High Blood Pressure? Stress and Digestion When we feel stressed, we don't digest our food well. That's because in periods of stress, our blood is focused in our muscles; but when we eat, we need adequate blood to go to our gut to digest our food. Accordingly, eating while under the influence of stress leads to poor digestion and nutrient absorption. People with chronic stress can then end up deficient in many different nutrients, even if they eat healthfully. By not having the nutrients needed to be healthy, your body is less able to fight off illness. Stress and Inflammation Long term inflammation is a leading cause of illness, and stress causes inflammation. One study noted that "75%–90% of human diseases are related to the activation of stress system." Chronic stress directly leads to systemic inflammation, in which our body is essentially attacking itself, and this process makes it more difficult for our bodies to ward off illness. Stress and Infection Long term stress increases our chances of a life-threatening infection. In fact, studies have shown that stress plays a part in nearly every situation of life-threatening infection, with one study concluding that "stress related disorders were associated with all studied life threatening infections." Even though stress leads our body to attack itself, it may not specifically attack the infection properly. Stress and Disease Stress can often lead directly to disease. It suppresses our T cells, which ward off illness, and therefore doesn't let our immune system work well at large. Stress increases the risk of diabetes, worsens asthma, and increases the potential to develop ulcerative colitis, just to name a few of the serious maladies it can cause. It can even lead to plaque buildup in arteries, which causes heart attacks, and it can make psychiatric problems worse. Stress and Illness Recovery Not only does stress cause illness, it also inhibits your ability to then recover from it. Stress is directly correlated to worse outcomes for wound healing, and it can actually slow healing down, with studies showing that it directly causes the healing process to take longer than it otherwise would. This means that not only can stress cause you to get sick, it can then also make it more challenging for you to recover and become well again. Self-Care Strategies As you can see, stress can be detrimental to our immune systems, leading to everything from infection to major disease. The best thing you can do to prevent stress from hurting your immune system is manage your stress. There are countless ways you can do this. The following are the easiest, least expensive, and most straightforward methods of managing your stress. Exercise Physical wellbeing can help us with assorted mental health issues, such as anxiety, and it can help prevent mental health issues from developing. Exercise causes our body to produce feel good chemicals, which are basically the opposite of stress hormones. Nutrition Unhealthy foods may feel like they help us become less stressed because in the short term, they're enjoyable and can flood our body with serotonin. But in the long term, most unhealthy foods can contribute to inflammation, which can then lead to illness. On the other hand, eating a diet rich in healthy foods helps to give our bodies the nutrients it needs to fight stress. Some nutrients, such as omega-3, which is found most prevalently in wild fish, serve to help our bodies fight stress. Practice Mindfulness Mindfulness is an impactful way to lower your stress levels. By focusing on the present and being in the moment, you can help yourself relax and talk yourself down from stressful situations. And by not spending so much time in your head worrying, you can do less conceptual stressing about the future or troublesome situations that you can't control. Starting the practice of mindfulness is as easy as just learning how to pay attention to yourself and your immediate surroundings. Breathwork It might sound like a new age technique, but breathwork actually has proven health benefits, and they work on people of all ages. The simple act of slowing down our breath slows down our nervous system and our heart, making our body on the whole better able to function. There are many different types of breathwork, but you can begin with the act of just focusing on your breathing and slowing it down, to reap stress-related benefits. Therapy Therapy is useful for stress in many ways. It can help you deal with it through talking with a professional, and also can provide you with additional modalities to cope with it. There are many specific types of therapy that can be useful for stress, from EMDR to hypnotherapy, but it can also be useful just to have a professional to talk to about the things that make you feel stressed and how you can cope with them. A Word From Verywell Knowing that you need to take steps to manage your stress can feel, well, stressful! Know that it can take years of unmitigated stress for problems to occur, and what matters most is that you are starting on the path of stress reduction now. 9 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. 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Front Hum Neurosci. 2018 Sep 7;12:353. doi:10.3389%2Ffnhum.2018.00353 By Ariane Resnick, CNC Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist for Stress Management Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.