Stress in the external environment can come at us in a number of different ways – whether it’s work, family, money, political tensions, health or time, we all experience some degree of emotional, physical or psychological strain. When we consider this occurring in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s not surprising that chronic stress is on the rise and we’re facing a mental health pandemic at the same time.

According to March 2022 findings from the American Psychological Association, the leading source of stress is the cost of living due to inflation, with 87% of respondents reporting financial concerns as a significant stressor in their everyday lives. This survey also found¹:

  • Gen Z adults and millennials report the highest levels of stress, with health-related concerns being the leading cause at 73%, money at 72% and work at 70% 
  • Stress about money is the highest recorded since 2015 
  • 23% of people reported increased drinking to cope with rising stress levels, and 58% reported undesired weight changes 
  • The vast majority of parents (over 70%) expressed concerns over their children’s well-being through the pandemic (noting concerns around physical and emotional health, cognitive development, academic development and social life) 

The Global Organization for Stress also reports:

  • Stress is the number one health concern of high school students 
  • 80 percent of people feel stress at work 
  • 75 percent of Americans experienced moderate to high stress levels in the past month

In small doses, humans are capable of managing stress, but there can be far-reaching effects on all of the body’s systems when this stress carries on for a period of several weeks or longer.

Chronic stress directly impacts our resilience and has been linked to many of the leading causes of death in North America, including cancer, heart disease and lung disease.

There is an undeniable correlation between stress and immune health. In fact, it’s been estimated that stress is responsible for causing up to 90% of all illnesses. The hormones secreted during stressful periods weaken the immune system and make us more susceptible to colds, flus and other infections. When we become depleted by chronic stress, our defences are down and we’re at greater risk of disease and dysfunction.

How the immune system responds to chronic stress

Inflammation is a normal part of the immune process designed to protect the body, but it’s also a double-edged sword; extended, unresolved periods of inflammatory activity can lead to a host of problems, particularly depression, anxiety and mood disorders. This creates a mind-body loop where inflammation essentially becomes both the cause and result of a weakened immune system.

Corticosteroids are released in periods of high stress, lowering the number of lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) and suppressing the immune system. Pro-inflammatory cytokines are also released through the immune response, which have been linked to anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses. 

As well, the immune system sometimes produces antibodies against parts of the central nervous system that affect mood and cognition, potentially leading to neurocognitive changes that can significantly impact quality of life. 

The gut-brain axis and immune health

The gut-brain axis refers to the bidirectional communication of the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system of the intestine and extends to include endocrine, immune and metabolic communication pathways. 

The intestinal microbiome influences mood, behavior, and stress tolerance, and has also been linked to mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. Similarly, impaired brain function and chronic stress cause overstimulation of the vagus nerve, which negatively impacts immune function.

The gut and the brain are closely connected with the gut influencing the health of the brain, and the brain influencing the health of the gut. With approximately 70-80% of the immune system located in the gut, it’s not difficult to see how intimately these systems are connected.

A healing path

The mind-body connection is a two-way street and this makes stress and immune health challenges more difficult to address and heal, often leading to burnout. When we’re both mentally and physically depleted, there is generally very little energy available to take action in improving our circumstances. Individuals with chronic stress often describe the experience as feeling stuck, and with so many people facing significant, prolonged stress globally, it’s almost become accepted as a normal part of life.

As overwhelming as it may feel to invest in healing and daily stress management practices when we’re in a state of distress and dysfunction, we need to be mindful about the small steps we can take to improve our mental health and support the immune system. Lifestyle changes can make a big impact. Here are some small acts of self care that will begin to promote healing in the body and the mind:

  • Get outside every day – even if you only have 30 minutes, immersion in nature can help to lower blood pressure, shift perspective and boost mood, increase vitamin D (which is helpful in reducing the inflammatory response and supporting immune health) and remind you of your connection to this nurturing energy 
  • Make time for movement – regular, moderate-intensity activity is an excellent way to combat stress and stimulate cellular immunity. It’s helpful in reducing the release of stress hormones and inflammation, improving sleep and boosting mood. 
  • Hydrate well and fuel yourself mindfully – nutrition and hydration have a major impact on both physical and mental health. It’s pretty common to reach for unhealthy foods and substances as a way of coping with stress, but a nutrient-dense diet and lots of water will help to support the gut microbiome, flush toxins and reset the immune system. 
  • Find a support system – chronic stress can be very isolating, but we should never feel alone in this. Share your feelings and ask for help from people you trust – reaching out can make all the difference in your healing journey.