– The Devastating Impact of Fear on Immune Function
Are you worried about what is going on in the world currently?
Perhaps during ‘normal’ times you feel worried about a job interview, speaking in public or the upcoming dental visit?
Take a deep breath and calm down. Fear and stress, in general, can affect your immune system. Over time, these feelings can wreak havoc on your health, leading to anxiety, depression, low energy, and diminished immune response. I know, I’ve been there with all of these.
Fear, anxiety, and panic attacks are strongly connected. These issues trigger the fight or flight response, causing both physiological and psychological symptoms. The stress response is a survival mechanism, but it can take a toll on your body in the long run.
Note that fear is often triggered by a perceived threat. The trigger may or may not be real. If, for example you’re preparing for a job interview, there’s nothing to fear. Deep breathing, yoga, guided imagery, and other relaxation techniques make it easier to overcome your fear and keep stress at bay.
These negative emotions have a direct impact on the immune system. If left unaddressed, they may affect your natural defences and leave you vulnerable to disease. It’s in your power to balance your emotions and find healthy ways to cope with fear.
Understanding the Stress Response
Fear is a natural human emotion that triggers the stress response. When you feel like you’re in danger, your body releases cortisol, noradrenalin, and other hormones that keep you alert. This reaction is known as the stress response.
If, for example, you’re driving on a busy street, the stress response sharpens your senses and may help you avoid a car accident. Your heart beats faster, your pupils widen, and you begin to sweat. Some people may also experience confusion, light headedness, hot flushes, digestive distress, or muscle tension.
The fight or flight response kicks in when you’re stressed, anxious, or afraid of something. In the case of anxiety or panic attacks, there may not be any actual danger, states the Centre for Clinical Interventions. Therefore, the threat may real or imagined.
Anxiety may trigger fear. For example, if you’re preparing to make a speech, you may experience fear due to an anxiety attack. In this case, the threat is imaginary.
Sometimes, your fear is justified. If, say, something is stalking you on the way home, it’s perfectly normal to be afraid. That’s why it’s important to determine the cause of fear.
Chronic stress, for instance, may cause feelings of fear and uneasiness. With this condition, your body is continuously in the fight or flight mode. Over time, you may develop more serious disorders, from heart disease and hypertension to weight gain. Prolonged stress may also cause changes in the brain, disrupt immune function, contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, and more.
Fear Affects Your Immune System
Living in constant fear — as it happens with anxiety or stress — can weaken your natural defences. Even small doses of stress may suppress cellular immunity, states a review published in the Psychological Bulletin Journal.
Immune responses to stressful situations are an integral component of the fight or flight response. In normal conditions, these changes in immune function could accelerate healing.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with constant fear. This feeling can impair immune function in the long run, leaving your body vulnerable to infection and disease. Chronic stress, for example, is associated with frequent illnesses, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, and peptic ulcers.
You might have heard of the mind-body connection. Your emotions have a direct impact on mental and physical health. A recent study featured in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity states that negative moods and feelings may cause changes in the immune response, causing inflammation.
Fear causes both emotional and biochemical reactions. Some people are adrenaline junkies and love the feeling of fear. However, most individuals react negatively to events or situations that may put them in danger.
Chronic fear is particularly harmful. This condition may disrupt the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems, alter the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, affect the circadian rhythm, and contribute to eating disorders. These issues were discussed at the 2017 Neuroscience Education Institute Congress.
As the researchers note, there is an association between chronic fear and mood swings, phobic anxiety, and other mental issues. The longer you live in fear, the higher your risk of developing more serious problems.
In the current context, excessive fear about COVID-19 may cause an immune reaction that triggers inflammation and increases disease risk. Fear of the unknown combined with stress and anxiety can take a toll on the immune system, causing long-term damage to your health.
How to Overcome Fear and Anxiety
As discussed earlier, fear is extremely complex and can have a multitude of causes. Sometimes, it’s driven by prolonged stress and anxiety. Other times, it’s associated with phobias or depression. That’s why it’s important to figure out the cause of your worries.
In the meantime, there are some things you can do to overcome fear and gain control over your emotions. Regular exercise, meditation, guided imagery, deep breathing and yoga can all help.
Let’s take physical activity, for example. A 2018 research paper indicates that exercise may decrease the frequency and intensity of panic attacks while reducing the body’s reaction to anxiety. In a study conducted on older adults, exercise and exposure therapy helped seniors cope with their fear of falling.
Another helpful strategy is deep breathing. When you’re stressed or anxious, take a deep breath for four seconds and then exhale for another four seconds. Continue for about five minutes. This simple exercise will slow your heart rate and promote relaxation.
You may also try meditation. If you can do it outdoors, that’s even better. According to The Harvard Gazette, mindfulness meditation can reduce anxiety and decrease the fear response. Note that most fears stem from past events. Meditation makes it easier to focus on the present moment and prevent the onset of fear.
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy to overcome fear and anxiety. Experiment with different techniques to determine what works best for you. Squeeze more exercise into your routine, even if it’s just a 15-minute walk. Try to meditate for at least 10 minutes in the morning or after work.
These small lifestyle changes can put you in control of your emotions, leading to mental well-being. Soon, you’ll feel more empowered and find it easier to tackle stress.
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