Welcome to another blog post of Wellness Wednesday!
I’m really excited about today because I’m doing a joint blog post with a good friend of mine, Connor Lidell. Connor is trained in mindfulness and has been practicing meditation for over 15 years. He is earning his certification as a Mindfulness Teacher and loves to share all things zen on his blog at Mindful Artistry.
Today we are talking about stress reduction and staying calm and how that affects the immune response. If you watched our most recent YouTube video (link here), we discussed ways that are scientifically proven to support your immune system. Of course there are some obvious ones such as eating healthy, exercising, and getting adequate sleep; but I feel like managing stress is overlooked as a culprit for lowering our immune system.
So just to recap, what does science say about staying calm?
We’ve learned that stress can down regulate your immune system. This means that when you are in a heightened stress state, it taxes your immune system and causes it to not activate when appropriate. It can often miss viruses leading to not only getting sick easier, but also being sick longer.
Connor, what are some ways we can know if we are in chronic stress or that our stress is starting to take a toll on us physically?
Stress manifests in so many different ways. In fact, the American Institute of Stress has a non-exhaustive list of 50 possible signs and symptoms of stress. Six of the big ones are:
- Body pain that doesn’t seem to have a direct cause
- Grinding teeth
- Dry mouth
- Wild mood swings
- Difficulty breathing
- Sudden change in appetite.
Personally, I feel stress the most through my moods and my appetite. Depressively staying in bed and eating junk food are my reactions to the insidiousness of stress. You might feel your shoulders tense up, or maybe you have a phantom pain in your side. Stress seems to surface in ways indirectly related to the actual emotional cause so it’s important that you remain vigilant and keep an eye on stress’s imperialist take-over of your body and mind.
Chronic stress can activate latent viruses…think shingles or herpes virus (the common cold sore). When we are chronically stressed, our body is low on resources to keep these latent viruses from activating and multiplying. This can lead to flair ups of diseases that are otherwise dormant.
Here’s another important scientific fact, and one that probably comes with a little common sense: the immune system of older people isn’t able to respond to stress(or viruses!) as well as young people. When we are younger, our immune system is fighting fit, or at least we hope! We learn to fight pathogens andforeign invaders by the adaptive and innate immunity in our immune response, then we make special memory cells so our immune response knows how to fight off those same pathogens if they try to invade us again! How cool?
Connor, can you share about how staying calm can not only help the young, but the older population as well?
The older population often worry that it may be too late in life to make a difference in their health; I would like to combat that misguided resignation. When looking at mindfulness as one possible mitigation to stress, researchers learned that even a small amount of meditation can decrease feelings of stress and may even help with immune response. There is some research that indicates that meditation may help combat the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Staying calm is a big part of the meditative process. One of the first things we learn as meditators is to adopt a still posture and become aware of the physical sensations in our body. If you take one minute to breathe in and out after getting comfortable, you will begin to feel what calm is.
So, in addition to Connor’s great input in our scientific exploration of stress and staying calm, he has decided to share some action steps that you can take today to start reducing stress and make sure that you aren’t overtaxing your immune system:
The best exercise I know of to help identify and combat stress is the Body Scan. This meditation was popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction courses at UCLA. The Mayo Clinic describes Body Scan meditation as an effective way to combat tension, worry, and anxiety. Here’s how you can do a quick Body Scan.
- Lie down, if you’re not tired, or sit on a chair. Get comfortable! This is not the exercise to force yourself into full lotus.
- Begin to breathe a little slower than normal. You don’t have to focus on your breath a lot; feel it get slower and deeper as you relax.
- Fall asleep. (No wait… strike that!)
- Instead of falling asleep, lead your mind down to your feet by wiggling your toes. Are you thinking about your toes now? Good! Wiggle them a little more.
- Now, I want you to tense up your feet! Tight! As much as you feel comfortable doing! Then, after 2-3 seconds, relax. Pay attention to how your feet feel. Are they still tense? Or, are they floppy and flaccid?
- Move on to the rest of your body. Part by part. Lower legs. Thighs. Abdomen. Left arm. Right arm. Neck. Mouth. Ears. Eyes. Tense each up then relax. You can do your whole body in five minutes or so!
- Once you’ve scanned your whole body, feel free to fall asleep, if you need it. If not, lie there and breathe for a little while. You’ve earned it! Then, bring yourself out of the meditative state with a good toe wiggle or a shoulder wiggle.
If you liked these action steps and want to experiment with stress reduction, Connor and the Nerd Chiropractor will be hosting a zoom conference call on Friday, May 22nd at 8:00 PM CST with a quick meditation that you can do on the call in order to help support your immune system. Please fill out the form below in order to receive the zoom call information or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Live Long and Prosper,
The Nerd Chiropractor
- Interactions of innate and adaptive immunity in brain development and function. Current Opinions in Psychology. 2015.