by Claire N. Agard, PhD, CCTP
An elderly relative may have said to you, “You need to stop worrying or you’ll make yourself sick”. If you’re like most of us, you probably discounted it, but guess what? That elderly relative was partially correct. Worry may make you sick.
Over the years, Science has shown that emotional; interacting social, cultural, and environmental influences; and biology all contribute to the development of and recovery from illness. Those relationships have important effects on health such that when the brain is ill, there is a chance that the body will also become ill. Evidence of these relationships was accidently found by psychologist, Robert Ader, Ph.D. in the early seventies. Dr. Ader found that, when rats were placed in stressful situations, they tried to avoid the stress and when they couldn’t, many of them became sick while others died. Fortunately, Dr. Ader ignored the views of some that the mind-body connection was nothing but folklore and continued to study the relationship. The result was the development of the field known as psychoneuroimmunology.
The term psychoneuroimmunology refers to the study of how health and illness are affected by communication between the brain and bodily systems. This “speaking” to each other occurs via two-way communication between glands in the brain and those in the abdomen. Products of the glands in the brain trigger those in the abdomen which, in turn, trigger the system that defends against illness. The two sets of glands and that system get information to and from the brain by way of a nerve that runs from the brain to the abdomen. This allows our minds (brain) to have significant influence over our bodies, and because of this, there are times when the brain is sick and the body also becomes sick or the other way around.
Scientists have found that stress can affect the brain in the same way that bacteria or a virus affects the body. That is, stress can cause such illnesses as anxiety, depression, poor concentration, fatigue, and lack of motivation. When this happens, information about the brain’s condition is passed on to the body’s defense system and can cause that system to stop working to protect the body from illness.
All is not lost however, anxiety, depression and the rest do not have to result in physical illness and often do not. Some people use coping strategies that protect them from becoming ill. Further, it is not necessarily the coping strategies that protect from illness but it may be the coping skills that one believes one has that provide protection. Other protective factors include social support and spirituality. Used here, spirituality does not mean religious, but refers to practices that lead to self-discovery, and the learning and practice of such basic values as forgiveness, kindness, generosity, and honesty. Research has shown that engaging in such practices can decrease rates of stroke, cancer, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, drug abuse, suicide, and mortality. The American Psychological Association (2020 ) defines social support as receipt of assistance or comfort from others, e.g. family members, friends, neighbors, religious institutions and/or support groups.
The bottom line is that stress does not have to make you ill. You can battle it by:
- Volunteering to help someone in need
- Connecting with friends, relatives, etc.
- Joining a support group
- Leaning on loved ones
Taking care of one’s physical self also helps to combat stress and its effects so, eat well, remain hydrated, exercise, and avoid such negative outlets as alcohol and/or illegal drugs. Finally, know when to seek help and do so.
American Psychological Association (2020). Spirituality. In APA dictionary of psychology. Retrieved
February 10, 2021. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/