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Anxiety and the Immune System

Sally-Anne Soameson, Psychiatrist
Anxiety and the Immune System

Your immune system is the defense mechanism the body uses to keep you safe from bacteria and viruses. It's incredibly powerful - stronger than most people realize. Every time you ingest germs or bacteria, your body's immune system destroys it quickly, because it is trained to do whatever it takes to keep you from getting sick.

Anxiety has a complicated relationship with the immune system, and unfortunately, there is some evidence that too much anxiety can actually weaken the immune system dramatically. It can put a stress on the body which in turn releases a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone, and is somewhat like nature’s alarm system. Anxiety doesn't cause sickness but when there is contact with germs, the weakened immune system may struggle to fight them back.

How Cortisol Weakens the Immune System

Cortisol weakens your immune system for a good reason. During periods of intense stress,cortisol attempts to reduce inflammation by weakening some of the antibodies that can increase inflammation. It also turns on natural immunity (the ability to fight off problems immediately) and moves resources away from specific immunities (the ability to prevent diseases your body knows how to control).

But cortisol is only helpful in short bursts. When you experience prolonged stress, your body needs those T-cells and white blood cells, and unfortunately, cortisol continues to suppress them, thus weakening your immune system over time.

The result isn't just that you may get ill. You still need to be in contact with germs and bacteria for this to occur. The main problem is that once you get sick, your body will have a harder time recovering. It needs these cells to attack intruders, and it is harder for your body to do that when your anxiety is squashing your immune system strength.

Anxiety Caused By a Weak Immune System?

There is also some evidence that those with allergies may be more prone to getting anxiety, which in turn weakens the immune system and could potentially lead to more allergies.

It's not clear why this is the case. Some theories are that this occurs at a molecular level, but it is quite possible that simply living with allergies and illnesses (as one would with a weak immune system) makes life more uncomfortable and difficult, which in turn increases the likelihood of developing anxiety. Your immune system may not cause anxiety, but may instead contribute to behaviors that eventually lead to anxiety on their own.

Fight Anxiety to Improve Immune System

There are actually some anxiety reduction strategies that can also have immune system boosting capabilities, such as:

Treating anxiety may help improve your immune system strength, which should help fight off illness and infections.

Article Resources
  1. Stein M, Keller SE, Schleifer SJ. Immune system. Relationship to anxiety disorders. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 1988 Jun;11(2):349-60. Review.
  2. Segerstrom, Suzanne C., and Gregory E. Miller. Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological bulletin 130.4 (2004): 601.
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