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People with autoimmune diseases have long suspected that stress is a source of their suffering. Now, a growing body of research finally supports what they’ve been saying all along. Autoimmune diseases are conditions in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks and damages its own healthy tissues. Some of the most well-known include rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and lupus.
What is stress?
Stress activates the “fight or flight” response.
Stress is the body’s response to a perceived threat or challenge. Stress activates a “fight or flight” response, releasing hormones that can increase heart rate, blood pressure, and energy levels. In the short term, stress is good for us. In the wild, it primed our bodies to fight off predators, and in modern life, it motivates people to take action and perform at their best. Unfortunately, long-term stress can have a long-lasting impact on a person’s health and well-being.
What are stress disorders?
Stress disorders are a group of mental health conditions that can develop as a result of exposure to traumatic or stressful events. The best known of these disorders is PTSD. These disorders can cause symptoms such as intense fear, avoidance behaviors, and re-experiencing the traumatic event through flashbacks or nightmares.
What’s the connection between stress and autoimmune issues?
The hormones that stress releases increase the level of inflammation in the body and activate parts of the immune response. Normally, there are checks and balances in all these systems that counteract this and prevent inflammation from getting out of hand. When stress is short-lived, things go back to normal. Unfortunately, when stress becomes chronic, inflammation can run amok.
As a result, numerous studies have connected chronic stress to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, depression, and many types of cancer. Additionally, the link between stress and flares of lupus and inflammatory bowel diseases is well-documented. It seems that stress can both prime the body to develop autoimmune disease, or it can worsen existing autoimmune issues.
Stress and autoimmune disease studies
If you combine this situation with an already over-active immune system, you can see how stress can help set the stage for autoimmune diseases. Over the past few years, several massive studies have reinforced this theory.
One study followed 120,000 U.S. military personnel for over 5 years. It sought compare rates of autoimmune diseases in people with PTSD compared to those who didn’t. The study found that people with this stress disorder were 58% more likely to develop autoimmune conditions like lupus and inflammatory bowel diseases. Interestingly, this effect didn’t change when the study accounted for body weight, smoking, or alcohol consumption. This implies that the presence of stress was much more powerful than any of those lifestyle factors.
Another massive study from Sweden that examined millions of people over 30 years had similar results. It discovered that people with PTSD were 46% more likely to develop an autoimmune disorder. That number for people with other stress disorders like Acute Stress Disorder was 36%.
Finally, a study of over 54,000 American women shows a growing risk of lupus relative to the amount of stress people carry. Participants were grouped by how many trauma and PTSD symptoms they reported. Those with the most symptoms were most likely to go on to develop lupus.
What can you do to reduce stress?
1. Get proper mental healthcare
If you think you might have a stress disorder that might be linked to an autoimmune issue, investigate it! The first place to start is with the PCL-5, a scientifically-validated test that you can take by yourself. This can help you identify any stress-related symptoms you might have. This provides an excellent starting point when you go to find a mental health provider.
2. Find your triggers
Some of the most common stress triggers involve not having your most basic needs met. This includes not sleeping enough, not eating well, or not getting enough time to yourself. Just identifying your needs will help you set personal limits and boundaries. This enables you to prepare for taxing situations and minimize stress when they come.
3. Exercise more
Exercise is a powerful way to fight stress that can help you feel better and more relaxed. Physical activity releases endorphins in our bodies, which improve mood and reduce stress. It can also help improve sleep quality, which can reduce stress levels further. Even small amounts of exercise, such as a 10-minute walk, can be helpful in reducing stress.
4. Practice relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques, like meditation, deep breathing, and yoga, can be effective in reducing stress. They help to slow down the mind and the body, which can reduce tension and increase feelings of calmness. You can learn these techniques through classes, books, or online resources. Practice them regularly to reap the most benefits.