Stress. We’re all familiar with it. Some more than others and to varying degrees, but every single person has faced some form of stress in their lives. This encompasses small day-to-day stresses, such as traffic or a work presentation, to larger-scale stresses like losing a job, moving house, or the passing of a loved one. But life is full of stresses and there is no way to really escape them. What we tend to forget is that all these external stresses are not only processed by our minds but also by our bodies.
It’s no secret that being stressed all the time (otherwise known as chronic stress) is not good for your health. But why is this exactly? Importantly, how can we lower our stress levels if we can’t change the situation or environment? As much as most of us would want, we cannot fly over traffic. An essential tool for keeping healthy in stressful environments is mindfulness.
Mindfulness stems from ancient religious techniques and is now incorporated into modern-day approaches in dealing with stress. At its core, mindfulness is as an attempt to ground a person to the present moment, and importantly, shift one’s perspective. It works on breaking away from automatic by stopping negative thought cycles. This is done by encouraging one to step back and observe situations for what they are, then allowing one to feel the emotion and evaluate these thoughts and feelings without judgment. It is described as a decentring from the situation, allowing one to ‘stand back and witness life’ without judgment.
Attempting to understand yourself in the context of stressful situations is a form of practising mindfulness. It’s an essential form of emotional regulation, bringing awareness inward and away from the ongoing chaos of the world.
As mindfulness may help reduce stress and yield resilience, it is no wonder it has been attributed to better overall health. Chronic stress about situations we are unable to control can be debilitating. Shifting the way we perceive stress may help us boost our immune system and overall health.
To understand how this might happen, we need to understand how the body deals with stress on a biological level.
How the immune system processes chronic stress
The relationship between stress, inflammation and depression is discussed in a Biomedicines review. The review explores the connection between stress and the immune response via the activation of inflammatory pathways. Inflammation is a crucial aspect of the immune response, wound healing, and defending the body against foreign pathogens. A certain balance is intricately maintained in our bodies when it is exposed to stress, ensuring responses are not excessive and stop when the stress is no longer present.
However, chronic stress upsets this balance, meaning the body is constantly exerting itself, exhausting itself and weakening our defence system.
With an individual’s defence mechanism lowered, their bodies are much more vulnerable to infection and cannot fight off pathogens (such as bacteria or viruses) as easily. People who are constantly exposed to stress show a significant weakening in almost all aspects of their immune responses. This makes sense after understanding the level of impact that stress exposure has on our biological responses.
However, studies have shown that different attitudes towards the same stressors can shift our immune responses. This is where mindfulness comes in, paving its way to the forefront of discussions not only about mental health but also our physical health.
As established, the essence of mindfulness is to allow an individual to process and reflect on their feelings towards certain situations in their life. This allows the person to have an alternative perception of the stress itself, otherwise known as ‘re-perceiving’.
‘Re-perceiving’ enables one to understand that a certain situation is no longer dangerous or threatening. Even if the situation itself is stressful, shifting one’s mindset so that one no longer perceives the stress as intensely overwhelming can be extremely beneficial. Stopping oneself from ruminating in negative thought cycles can be damaging to not only one’s mental health but, as we’ve learnt, physical health too.
Being mindful may improve our immune responses
When relating this to the way the body processes and holds onto stress, it makes sense that being mindful can help alleviate the strain the body is under when thinking about stressful situations.
Less perceived stress means the body may be able to save energy it would otherwise use to defend itself. If an event is no longer perceived as stressful, biological responses are not induced for as long. Hence, being mindful may help to alleviate the damaging effects that chronic stress can have on suppressing our immune responses.
However, if you are experiencing chronic stress, or feel overwhelmed, make sure to seek help from a medical professional or mental health practitioner.
Mindfulness can relieve common symptoms of mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression. Hence, the practice is one of the most widely used non-clinical tools to treat these conditions. We will now delve into studies that explore the effect of mindfulness on our immune system.
Studies on mindfulness & the immune response
Studies have shown how mindfulness significantly induces activation of the genes involved in immune responses.
A particular study involved taking blood samples from 106 participants that went on a mental health retreat. All participants exercised mindfulness by meditating 10 hours a day. The results were fascinating, as they showed that all the participants displayed an enhanced activation of certain immune cell pathways, and these changes were solely due to the mindfulness practice.
Another review looked at the effect of mindfulness on both cancer and healthy patients. The authors analysed results from 13 past studies which reported on levels of markers associated with the immune response for healthy patients and cancer patients.
They found that the mindfulness interventions, carried out by participants with cancer, had a significant effect on the levels of important immune response markers, called cytokines. These markers are involved in the previously mentioned inflammatory response. They were able to conclude that mindfulness has at least some effect on our immune responses and that more research is needed to determine the mechanisms by which this occurs exactly.
Improvement in the quality of life of people who practice mindfulness is significant, making it a helpful tool for dealing with stressful periods in life. Considering the complexity of both our thought processes and biological mechanisms, the link between how we perceive stress, mindfulness and the immune response requires further research. Figuring out the specific biological mechanisms involved in how mindfulness affects our stress response could be the next step in this exciting area of research.
If you would like to read more, MDPI journals such as Psych, Behavioral Sciences and Biomedicines explore different aspects of psychology and mental health. If you would like to submit your research, you can check out MDPI’s full list of journals.