Fear serves a vital purpose - it notifies us of threats. But when fear is chronic, it causes more harm than good. One such consequence of chronic anxiety is weak immunity.
Immunity refers to your ability to resist toxins and infections. Your body has many features strengthening your immunity - your skin and mucus to prevent harmful germs from entering your body, and specific antibodies and white blood cells to fight off infectious diseases internally.
These processes must function correctly. Otherwise, you'll get ill. Below, we deep-dive into the relationship between fear and immunity, identifying how the stress response impacts your ability to fight infections and diseases.
How Your Fear System Works
Fear is a natural human emotion. It's an intense, internal response that alerts us of danger and threats that may cause harm. This danger could be physical or psychological. Two components make up our fear response:
- Biochemical Reaction
- Emotional Response
The biochemical reaction includes our physical responses to a threat, such as:
- Rapid breathing
- Digestive difficulties
- Chest pain
- Dry mouth
- Increased heart rate
Meanwhile, our emotional response refers to the feeling of fear we experience in response to a threat. It also refers to the unpleasant feelings of anxiety, unease, and worry we experience as a result.
Fear serves an essential function, keeping us safe. This was particularly useful in the past when we often came into contact with predators. However, nowadays, there isn't the same level of risk. Yet, millions of people around the world suffer from chronic fear/anxiety. Why is this?
Most people experience chronic fear because of imagined rather than real threats. Our brains attempt to predict potential hazards that may occur in the future so that we can prepare ourselves, giving us the best possible chance of survival.
You can find out more about the stress response system here.
This whole process is excellent in theory, but there are an unlimited number of potential threats. Therefore, you can end up in a fearful state, even when in complete safety. This is what leads to chronic fear.
But how does chronic fear affect immunity?
How Fear Affects Immunity
When our fear response system functions appropriately, activating processes to help our survival while inhibiting non-essential functions and returning the body to a normal state when we are safe, fear benefits our immune system.
For instance, we release cortisol (a stress hormone) when our stress response becomes active due to fear. Cortisol can boost immunity by reducing inflammation.
Evidence also suggests that acute stress affects the distribution of white blood cells around our bodies, including sending them to sites of injury. This process helps heal wounds and prevents infections from injuries such as bites, scrapes, and puncture wounds.
While short-term fear can have many benefits, chronic anxiety demonstrates the opposite effect. Much scientific evidence shows that chronic stress suppresses the immune system. It does this in several ways:
- Reducing the ability of our natural killer cells to damage toxins;
- Suppressing the rapid increase in numbers of lymphocytes (white blood cells) in response to an infection;
- Hindering our ability to gain immunity.
A study investigating stress's effects on medical students' immune systems during exam season also shows interesting results. Students showed higher levels of T-cells (a specific type of white blood cell) before the exam period than during exams.
They also found that immune responses were especially weak in students displaying high levels of loneliness, anxiety, or depression and those going through stressful life events.
It's worth noting that this study didn't look at the effect of illness on stress, so it may be that being ill made students more stressed rather than the other way around. It also didn't consider the effect of other factors, such as substance use, diet, general health, sleep patterns, and more.
So, chronic fear can have a dampening effect on our immune system. But does it affect diseases? Are we more prone to diseases with a weakened immune system?
When it comes to this question, the research is mixed. Some evidence shows that changes in immunity can predict disease progression in conditions like HIV. Other research looking into immunosuppression and disease susceptibility has been unable to find a link.
More research is needed to understand the relationship between fear and the likelihood of developing diseases.
How to Reduce the Immunosuppressant Effects of Fear
While you can't change the effects fear has on the body, you can alter the amount of anxiety you experience. This involves various lifestyle changes. Let's take a look at some changes you can make.
We all know that exercise has innumerable health benefits. One such benefit is the reduction of stress. Exercise decreases the levels of stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, making you less likely to suffer from chronic stress.
It also promotes the release of feel-good hormones such as endorphins, a natural painkiller, and mood booster.
To reduce your stress levels, follow a regular sleep pattern. Going to sleep and waking up at consistent times lessens cortisol levels and regulates the immune system, boosting immune function. Sleep has this effect because it gives your body a chance to produce chemicals that fight infections and enhance your body’s immunity.
In contrast, not getting enough sleep can make you more anxious as it activates the brain region involved in worry and emotional processing.
Meditation helps suppress the stress system, bringing your body into a state of calm by focusing on the present moment rather than past and future stresses.
Meditation may also help ease the effects of medical conditions such as chronic pain, cancer, asthma, depression, and sleep problems. This, in turn, may reduce stress levels.
The Bottom Line
Evidence shows that the healthy functioning of our stress response system can boost our immune function, protecting us from infection and helping wounds heal. However, when fear becomes chronic, it suppresses our immune systems, making us more vulnerable to the effects of infections.