The Dangerous Effects of Stress (and How to Stay Healthy When the World is Freaking Out)

Lucky us—to get hit with two pandemics at once. While everyone is hyper-focused on COVID-19, most are ignoring the rampant stress that’s spreading faster than the coronavirus that spawned it. The thing about the situation that should be concerning health officials and everyone else is that all this trauma and drama affects immune systems, leaving the world’s over-stressed population vulnerable to catching the disease that’s causing all the anxiety and negative energy to begin with. Last week, we shared the secret to immunity against all diseases: exercise. No surprise, working out also battles stress. It’s one way staying fit keeps you from getting ill. Let’s talk about that more, along with a number of other things you can do to fight stress and stay healthy when the world is freaking out.

How Stress Breaks Down Your Immune System

When you get stressed out, you could experience several immediate physical reactions including anxiety, headache, restlessness, chest pain, or nausea. Those are direct results of your body flooding with adrenaline and cortisol, a hormone that, under normal circumstances, helps you deal with stress in a healthy way by assisting with blood glucose levels, controlling your metabolism, and helping regulate blood pressure. Unfortunately, when stress hormones are released, they also signal your body to shift all its energy onto that “fight or flight” situation, and it ends up shutting down other necessary systems including your immune system. Again, under normal circumstances, that state is supposed to be temporary. That’s why, when you’re subjected to ongoing, long-term stress, cortisol levels remain elevated and begin to affect your health, causing alarming effects including:

  • Depression, mood swings, fatigue
  • high blood pressure
  • weight gain
  • cardiovascular disease
  • respiratory conditions

What’s more, your immune system starts to break down and that’s the reason why stress is linked to stomach ulcers, heart disease, asthma, and infectious illnessspecifically the flu. It’s also interesting to note that a number of conditions resulting from stress are also on the CDC’s list of underlying medical conditions that put people at higher risk for becoming severely ill if they contract the coronavirus. So, it stands to reason that guarding against these conditions or at least keeping them in check through exercise will support your immune system and help protect against contracting any illness.

Staying Healthy During Stressful Times

Understanding how stress can leave you susceptible to infectious disease is only part of the solution. The next step is recognizing that, even though you “get” an enforced open-ended vacation from normal life, the current situation is stressing you out. Maybe you don’t feel it 24/7, and maybe you feel like you’re dealing with it fairly well. Still, no one can completely escape the shock, upset, and strain that the complete chaos and upheaval in our schedules have caused. Once you’ve cleared those two stages, you can move on to managing the stress and maintaining your health.

Working Out

Naturally, we feel that exercise is the number one way you can keep your immune system strong. Just in case you think we’re biased, though, you should know that it’s at the top of the Mayo Clinic’s list of ways to manage stress. That’s because when you work out, your body reduces the amount of stress hormones it releases. Plus, getting your blood flowing clears bacteria out of your airways, and it turns your white blood cells into fierce illness and infection fighters.

Enforced togetherness can add to stress.

When you’re not used to it, being cooped up in close quarters with the family can be a cause of stress in itself. Many people might deal with that stress by going to the gym. But, wait. What if you can’t get to the gym because of a shutdown or quarantine? Stress levels go up. Additionally, a vast number of people who work out do it to ward off depression, fight PTSD, or deal with a number of emotional issues. That’s what makes this plague an issue of mental health as well as one of physical health. Many officials blithely suggest “working out at home” and “going outside for a walk and outdoor activities.” It makes you wonder if those officials have ever worked out a day in their lives. Spring is barely here, and most of the country is still experiencing winter-like weather, so outdoor workouts aren’t likely to happen right now. What’s more, studies have found that resistance training boosts the amount of immune cells circulating through your system. That means even if the weather was good enough to go for a jog or bike ride, the loss of access to your usual workout can have a negative effect on your immune system if you resistance train.

Body weight exercises can be a fairly good short-term solution for weight lifters who can’t get to the gym.

If you don’t have access to the equipment you normally use, don’t let the research bum you out. You can try to get your hands on some home fitness equipment, but be prepared for many companies to be sold out of stock. At the end of last week’s blog, we gave a handful of links to articles that list alternative ways to exercise when you can’t get to the gym, including bodyweight exercises, equipment-less routines, and outdoor workouts. And, if you do have access to a health club and haven’t been exposed to COVID-19 and aren’t sick with any type of illness, be sure to do everyone a favor (yourself included) by wiping down the equipment with disinfectant (all the responsible gyms are well-stocked now) and using hand sanitizer frequently.

Other Stress-Reducing Tricks

If you temporarily have to change up your workouts to something different, consider yoga, tai chi, or kickboxing. All three get your brain involved, helping keep you mentally healthy while you’re staying physically healthy. Definitely do get some outdoor time in, if weather permits. Getting out into nature has been shown to reduce stress—even if it is in a relatively urban setting like at a park or along a greenbelt. Consider starting a meditation practice, too. Meditating for just 15 minutes a day delivers a slew of health benefits including stress reduction.

And while we’re talking about mindful things like meditation, yoga, and getting out into nature, we suggest you seriously consider unplugging. When faced with tons of free time, many people got excited at the prospect of catching up on their binge-watching. While there’s nothing wrong with catching a few back-to-back episodes of Mrs. Maisel, Stranger Things, or Westworld, sitting on the sofa like a slug for weeks on end will eat away at your overall health—mental as well as physical.


What’s more, staying tuned into the news all day every day will certainly drive you over the edge. We say #boycottthenews . The media isn’t passing on any good news, anyway. They’re not giving us an accurate picture of the current outbreak compared to past pandemics, and they’re focusing solely on the death toll while leaving out the number of people who have recovered, which happens to be in the hundreds of thousands. Even the World Health Organization says you should limit your news check-ins to once a day—twice max. It’s the media and social networking that have stirred up all this panic and stress, turning way too many people into information junkies glued to their screens like methamphetamine addicts jonesing for their next benny. Break the habit. We promise you’ll be happier and healthier.

Sticking to a schedule can be cathartic during an uncertain time like this, and it’s especially helpful for those who are still working, but who are doing it from home now. Knowing what you’re going to do each day gives you purpose so you don’t feel at loose ends. Even if you worked from home long before corona hit, your schedule may have taken a hit. More people at home with you and/or new, extra duties will do that. Take a deep breath, accept the fact that you’re living Normal 2.0 now, and set up your new schedule–then stick to it.

Don’t look at quarantine as vacation–use it to take care of those to-do’s you haven’t had time for.


If you’re not working while at home, instead of being tempted to spend your days staring at the TV or computer screen, do something creative and fun. Work on a jigsaw puzzle, start a journal, build a tree house, paint the living room, learn to play an instrument, clean out your closet or the attic. There are probably a ton of to-do’s you’ve been meaning to get to. Do them now, and if they’re activities the whole, quarantined family can get in on, all the better.

What You Eat Can Strengthen or Weaken Your Immune System

You still have access to healthy food–don’t undermine your immune system with preservative-loaded processed foods.

Finally, make sure what you eat supports your health. A recent study showed a link between diet and stress, finding that diets lacking Omega-3’s and fiber were linked to increased stress, anxiety and depression. What’s more, WebMD says that stress and dehydration work in a vicious cycle—stress can dehydrate you and dehydration can stress you. Make use of all that bottled water you hoarded when this all started, and use it to wash down healthy, stress-fighting foods such as citrus fruits, nuts, and even a bar of dark chocolate. And when you make out your online grocery list, be sure to include things like:

  • sweet potatoes
  • whole-grain bread
  • avocados (guacamole, anyone?)
  • herbal tea
  • tuna, halibut, or salmon
  • milk, cheese, yogurt, and eggs (especially if they’re supplemented with Omega-3 fatty acids)
  • fiber-rich foods such as beans, peas, berries, broccoli, and kale

We saw the empty shelves at the market, so we know your emergency pantry is brimming with canned goods and processed foods. The problem is, a lot of the food you’ve squirreled away is bad for your immune system. The good news is that this isn’t a full-scale emergency situation. Grocery stores are still open and there’s plenty of fresh foods available to be delivered right to your doorstep. Eat fresh and healthy now to shore up your immune system, and save your stash for a time when it’s truly needed.

The Final Word

Most of all—and this can’t be emphasized enough—remember that this is all temporary. Half the world is healed up already. It’s true that things aren’t likely to return to the way they were in 2019 and before, but the fear and anxiety will die down, businesses will open their doors, and people will come outside of their homes once again. And we’ll all get on with our lives.

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