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Stress and Immune System: Protect your Immune System through your Thoughts

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HOW AND WHY PROTECT OUR IMMUNE SYSTEM THROUGH OUR THOUGHTS?

As a result of the Covid-19 crisis and the strategies put in place by governments for the sake of their control, the population is pushed to live a situation until a few days before. The novelty of this context can lead us to feel emotions that have not been experienced until now or at least not with such intensity, which are only the result of how we are thinking and interpreting everything we are experiencing: the information we hear every day; the idea of ​​touching something that could contaminate us; think about the subsequent contagion to third parties (family and friends); the anticipations we make about the impact on our work or the symptoms that we can notice in our body, etc.

The purpose of these lines is to relate what we have every day in our heads, that is, our thoughts and interpretations, with our physiological stress response and the effect on our immune system.

How does stress affect our immune system?

When we speak of stress response, we refer, in a very brief way, to the release of hormones by our body to prepare us to “fight” in a situation that is perceived as threatening (we release adrenaline and norepinephrine) and to endure this situation if it is prolonged in time (we mainly release cortisol). It consists of what our body does to face what is coming upon it. Our current situation has been going on for a month, and what is worse, we do not know when it will end. The maintenance and uncertainty of “until when” will make us continue releasing more cortisol.

The physiological stress response in specific situations, even if they are very intense, is of great help. In fact, it has allowed us to survive to this day because it provides us with an "extra" dose of energy to respond with more energy and speed (we release glucose and stored fatty acids by activating the neural, neuroendocrine and endocrine systems of this response). But the stress maintained over time is different. The release of more cortisol than normal maintained over time weakens us, affects our sleep (fragmenting it) and our mood (symptoms of anxiety and depression may appear). All these affections feedback the physiological stress response, causing us to continue releasing more cortisol. Most of us probably remember sometime of over-demand, or a family or work crisis, in which after a while we fell ill, our rest was damaged, or we felt distressed or depressed.

Thus, stress and its physiological response weaken our defences, weaken our body and increase the risk of opportunistic infections, which can lead us to fall ill and develop symptoms similar to that of Covid-19 but that has nothing to do with it ( let us insist again that we are in times of flu and allergies). This leads us to interpret these symptoms as a demonstration of having contracted Covid-19, further enhancing the stress response.

From all this follows the enormous need to always take care of yourself, but especially in these circumstances.

What can we do to take care of ourselves and protect our immune system?

Here are some recommendations with practical ideas to fulfil them:

1. Decrease the amount of news you see or hear: we recommend setting it once a day to stay up to date, if it's not at night, much less before going to bed. Mute WhatsApp groups where you receive news and check them only once a day. Take a moment in the day to expose yourself to that information and do not expose yourself to it outside of the time that you have planned.

2. Promote an adequate state of mind: remember that our state of mind depends on the activities we do for pleasure, duty, and rest. As if it were a three-legged stool, if one of those legs fails, the rest automatically lose their usefulness. There must be time for three o'clock and that it is balanced. Here are some ideas:

• Pleasure at home: reading, music, series or documentaries or visits to virtual museums, video calls with family or friends, video games, exercise, modelling, gardening (for the lucky ones with a garden), cooking, drawing, crafts, board games, etc. .

• Duty at home: if you telework you have the possibility to cover this area. Otherwise, you can organize cabinets, redistribute furniture, organize your computer desk, take an online course, languages, ​​or others. In other words, find moments a day where you feel productive and fulfilled. Guilt often strikes after long periods of contemplation and is enormously damaging to our mood and to other aspects such as rest and motivation.

• Enough rest: try to sleep a minimum of hours that give you a restful sleep (for some it is 6 hours, for others it is 9) but only at night, do not nap. To avoid naps after a bad night, try to occupy the part of the day where you get the most sleep (usually, after eating) with some easy and distracting activity such as video calls, with friends or family or if you give the body, with exercise physical.

In order to achieve an adequate state of mind, it is also essential to make use of distractions that “take us out” of ruminating thoughts related to the virus itself, the economy, the work situation, the confinement and other situations that are being lived at present. Distracting yourself in these cases is essential so as not to harm our mood.

3. Do physical exercise: physical exercise plays a very important role in our mood, as it plays an antidepressant role, favouring the release of serotonin. Make a place for yourself in your living room and put on an online yoga, Pilates, or other class. Do not hesitate to use machines such as the stationary bike, elliptical or others if you have them. At the beginning, schedule a short session that is easy to reach to start (5 minutes) and that has a positive impact on your motivation. Do not forget to reward yourself for doing this activity.

4. Remember that your interpretations or thoughts about what happens to you and anticipations about the economic and labour future are only hypothetical thoughts, not proven truths. For example, a person with anorexia thinks that he is overweight, he is so convinced of it that he drastically reduces his intake until he puts himself in serious danger, but it would be wondering to what extent he is convinced implies being right. If you have any of those common symptoms that are talked about daily, remember that the flu, allergies, and other conditions are also common at this time. Not everyone is infected, and we do not have to get infected if we follow the rules of hygiene and protection for ourselves and others. In order to face this type of thoughts, it is enormously beneficial to analyse them to ask ourselves what degree of certainty we have in this regard and to what extent we are distorting the data that reality presents to us.

Example: thinking "it is hard for me to breathe, 4 days ago I went to buy at the supermarket and I am sure I have been infected."

 

QUESTIONS TO ADDRESS YOUR THOUGHTS

POSSIBLE ANSWERS

1. What information do I have that my thinking is true?

- 4 days ago, I went to the supermarket

- In the supermarket I saw a person coughing

2. Is that data really evidence that confirms what I think?

- It is not proof that I have the Covid-19 right now

3. What information do I have against it? 

- I went with a mask and gloves

- Do not touch anything without gloves

- Cough is a very common symptom at this time of year

4. Am I focusing only on certain information? 

- Yes, I'm just observing that it is difficult for me to breathe. I have no more symptoms and shortness of breath is also a symptom of anxiety (it has happened to me in the past)

5. How does it make me feel to think like this? What effects does it have on me?

- It makes me more nervous and makes me breathe worse and not get out of my mind ...

 

There are other measures that can help you strengthen our immune system (food, for example). Here you propose the ones that we, as psychologists, are responsible for.

Do not forget to take advantage of this time to pamper yourself, take care of yourself, think of yourself and rescue any unexpected learning from this situation!

Prepared in collaboration with Dra. Gema Rubio

 

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