HOW DOES THE BRAIN RESPOND TO STRESS?
When we receive information, for example about a virus with unknown and unpredictable outcome like COVID-19, it can cause stress. The way we respond to stress starts at the amygdala, an important part of the limbic brain in processing emotions (like fear and anger). The amygdala is especially activated by sudden and uncertain stimuli and situations. So when we receive stress related information, the amygdala processes it and decides whether we are in danger or not. This primitive emotional part of the limbic system hijacks the prefrontal cortex and is hardwired to create an immediate fight-or-flight response as a survival mechanism. In other words the amygdala overrides our “thinking brain” and we can’t think clearly, make rational decisions or control our responses anymore.
HOW IS OUR EMOTIONAL AND MENTAL HEALTH LINKED TO THE IMMUNE SYSTEM?
When the amygdala perceives danger, it responds by sending a signal to the hypothalamus resulting in a fast initial stress response. The hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system through the adrenal glands. As a response noradrenaline and adrenaline are released into the bloodstream, resulting in the typical fight-or-flight response (increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, faster breathing, sweating, increased alertness, etc.).
The second response of the stress system involves the HPA-axis (hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenal glands). As a result, cortisol, the stress hormone, is released. Cortisol has various physiological effects including support of the initial stress response, delayed wound healing and modulation of our immune system.
These responses work out perfectly if we are being chased by a big predator. However if we are facing a predator, like COVID-19, for a prolonged period, our stress response does not shut down.
Prolonged stress (any type of stress: physical, psychological, social or caused by an infection) results in the same activation of the HPA-axis. The overall effect on the immune system is a shift from Th1 immune system response towards the Th2 response. This shift results in a poor ability to fight viral infections. Also, an overactivity of the Th2 system also makes us more susceptible for autoimmune diseases like allergic rhinitis, atopic dermatitis, lupus and asthma).
We don’t want to compromise our immune system during a viral pandemic, right? So we might want to stay calm and observe what our mind is actually creating…
HOW CAN WE COPE WITH STRESS?
Self care is not only caring for your physical health but it also includes your mental health. I personally practice mindfulness on a daily basis and I highly recommend to try it during these uncertain times. Mindfulness to me means being aware of the present moment, without judging. Every tool that brings me into the present moment is my mindfulness “practice”. There are several methods or tools, it’s no one-size-fits-all method.
My favourite tools that I try to incorporate every day are:
- chanting mantras
- toning or singing
- playing an instrument
- sound meditation
- painting and drawing
- being in nature
I also try to be mindful about what I watch (on the news) or read.
What are your tools?
Allison, K. L., & Rossouw, P. J. (2013). The therapeutic alliance: Exploring the concept of “safety” from a neuropsychotherapeutic perspective. International Journal of Neuropsychotherapy, 1, 21–29.
Pruimboom Leo, (2017) The multiple faces of the human immune system.
Schwartz Michael, (2015). Neuroimmunity.