Human beings experience life through thoughts, feelings and behaviours as we respond to life circumstances. Stress is a normal factor in the interaction between our internal self and our environment.
Stress can be positive or negative – on the one hand motivating us to undertake the tasks that are part of living – on the other hand, triggering negative emotions that, if prolonged, can lead to anxiety, depression and physical illness.
The Mind-Body Connection
Our response to stressful events is influenced by our perceptions and our coping resources. How we appraise, or make sense of situations, determines the type and intensity of stress-related emotions like anxiety, anger, guilt, sadness and shame.
Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates stress. It acts like a thermostat that regulates our body’s response to perceived threat – priming it for action or calming it down. Prolonged stress can reach a tipping point beyond which the nervous system’s ability to “self-soothe” gets worn down and this can lead to illness.
Cortisol is a key stress hormone that is released at times of stress. However, too much cortisol can be a health risk. Prolonged stress, resulting in elevated cortisol levels, wears down the immune system and increases the risk of illness.
Stressful events and negative emotions can affect our immune system. Many chronic conditions including depression, insomnia, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain and hypertension are linked to stress.
Human growth hormone, which enhances immune function, is released during deep sleep. Sleep interruption due to psychological stress may lessen secretion of this hormone.
Psychological treatments can teach relaxation, coping and problem solving skills, self-awareness and emotional regulation. These strategies help to control our stress response, boosting our psychological and physical immunity to negative stress and its harmful effects.