We typically think of stress as a negative influence, a hindrance to good health. Often times, in our busy, overstimulated society, it can be. However, it may be useful to reframe our understanding of stress and how it works within our bodies. Certain kinds of stressors can actually be very helpful. Whether or not stress is having a beneficial effect upon the immune system depends upon the levels of cortisol it is producing.
Cortisol is an important hormone in the body. It is secreted by the adrenal glands, which sit just above the kidneys. Cortisol is responsible for proper immune function, regulation of blood pressure, inflammatory response, and insulin release for blood sugar maintenance.
Between weeks 30-32 of pregnancy, cortisol initiates production of fetal lung surfectant which is particularly important during delivery. This allows the baby’s lungs to empty of amniotic fluid and fill with air. For this reason, I’ve thought it interesting to consider the idea of how we kind of morph from amphibian to mammalian at birth (so awesome!). But I diverge.
In his book “Working with Emotional Intelligence,” Daniel Goleman says, “At low levels, cortisol can help the body fight a virus or heal damaged tissues, but when too much cortisol flows, it diminishes the effectiveness of the immune system.”
Psychology distinguishes between “eustress” and “distress.” Both have an effect on our cortisol levels. “Eustress” literally means “good stress.” It actually has a beneficial effect on our immune system as it produces healthy levels of cortisol, especially when balanced with proper rest and relaxation. Examples of eustress inducers include winning a competition, getting a promotion, marriage, the birth of a baby, meeting a challenge or going on a roller coaster ride. Eustress comes from the positive tension that occurs between where we are now and where we want to go.
So how does eustress benefit the immune system? Dr. Hans Selye is the endocrinologist who coined this term. According to his research, eustress braces the immune system and increases longevity and enjoyment of life. It should not be avoided, but embraced in balance by including proper rest and relaxation. A simple illustration is exercise. Exercise is an example of eustress that has been proven to benefit the immune system. Excessive exercise, however, can lead to a weakened immune system, fatigue and injuries.
Stress is a normal part of daily living. Reframing our relationship with it can help us understand it better and help diffuse the fear around it. Cortisol is a necessary hormone. It is initiated by stress. Knowing this can potentially help us manage our stressors more effectively. It’s good to have challenges in life. The key is to ask yourself whether or not your challenges are inspiring you or draining you. If you’re feeling drained, it’s likely your immune system is suffering. If, however, you have challenges that inspire you, chances are good that you’re building your immune system. Go for the inspirations. They will light you up mentally, emotionally, spiritually AND physically.