Immunity, Stress, and Diseases

I remember throughout high school and college I would always have a stuffy nose and a little cough around finals week. I hated it because when the class was quiet and focused on the exam, my sneezing and coughing was constantly disruptive. Turns out that a common cold during a stressful week is more common than I thought. Research has shown that stress is associated with an increased susceptibility of developing a common cold (Cohen et al., 2012; Sapolsky, 2004). In these experiments participants were spritzed up their nose with a rhinovirus (what typically causes the common cold), and researchers found that stressed participants were about three times more liking of getting a cold after being exposed to the virus (Sapolsky, 2004). Follow-up studies have shown that developing a common cold after being exposed to a virus is more susceptibility to chronic stress (compared to acute), especially if the stressful life event was recent (Cohen et al., 2012).

Interesting in further exploring the potential relationship between stress and illness, researchers investigated how physical and psychological stressors could attribute to breast cancer. Research has shown that women frequently attribute their cancer to stress via self-reports. However, research (see: Shoemaker et al., 2016) fail to show scientific evidence of stress and increased risk of cancer. Shoemaker et al. (2016) found that while there was no significant association between breast cancer risk and perceived stress levels, they did discover that risk did increase for participants who lost a mother, not a father, before the age of 20 – excluding mothers with breast cancer. Sapolsky (2014) discusses how popular books in the late 1980s may have contributed to this idea of stress causing cancer, as Siegel (1986) emphasized that people with a lack of love, spirituality, and faith in their lives are more prone to cancer and illness. He quoted in his book (Love, Medicine, and Miracles, 1986) that “there are no incurable diseases, only incurable people.” Ideas like these grabbed people’s attention, especially if they could not afford proper treatment. Siegel went on to found a program called Exceptional Cancer patients where he attempts to relieve people from stress and have them focus on the nature of life and spirituality (Sapolsky, 2004). While his published articles found no significant effects on his techniques and survival time, this movement contributed to the interest in examining well-being and illness and morality.

While it’s still not understood whether stress can affect the risk of cancer or survival time for cancer patients, Sapolsky (2004) describes to the reader that people with fewer social connections have 2.5 times more of a chance dying from an illness. I find this interesting because initially I would assume that the smaller your social connection is the less likely you are to be infected by a virus or stressed in general. However, it emphasizes that with the lack of a social support system you might be more likely to experience risky behaviors (e.g. smoking) or forget to take medicine (Sapolsky, 2004). He does acknowledge that more research is needed to examine whether the lack of social connections causes risk of illness, or does being ill reduce the amount of people you interact with. This is important because in Hodes et al. (2015) we find out that depression alters the brain of an individual and has a physical impact on the body (i.e. not wanting to get out of bed) – which could relate with Sapolsky’s relationship between illness and social connections.

I find it surprising how detrimental stress can be on your health. As a social psychologist, I constantly explore how stress can affect perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors during a variety of events (i.e. intergroup and interracial interactions). Outside of research I really only saw stress as something that made my shoulders tense, changed my mood, and either made me sleep deprived or hungry. I never imagined how constant stressful events can eventually develop autoimmune diseases. While I think that research is necessary, this week’s readings made me recognize that everybody needs to know about the effects of stress – as people are frequently stressed for a variety of reasons.

One thought on “Immunity, Stress, and Diseases

  1. Great post, Jay! You made a great connection between Sapolsky’s discussion of the negative impacts of social support on stress and immunity and it’s potential impact on depression. As social support likely contribute to both risk and impacts of depression on psychological well-being it is important to understand this factor of social support on not only improving quality of life, but perhaps immune function as well. I also found it very interesting and eye-opening learning more about the effects of stress on our immune function and definitely agree that we need to educate the public on just how detrimental stress can be on our bodies.

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