Stress is a normal part of life, and it can even be helpful if it means you finally buckle down and finish that paper you've been putting off. But chronic stress — the kind that stays with you for long periods of time — can take a physical toll. "Our bodies can get conditioned to having that chronic level of stress, and then our immune system response is suppressed," Dolly Klock, MD, a board-certified family physician in Los Angeles, told POPSUGAR. "When our immune system response is suppressed, then we become more susceptible to illness."
Dr. Klock explained that the immune cells in the body are programmed to detect threats like bacteria and viruses and destroy them. When this system is shut down, the body can struggle to fight off these "invaders," leaving us vulnerable. Exactly how can stress disrupt such a powerful process? For starters, the emotional strain can make it harder to keep up healthy habits that help support immunity, like getting enough sleep and eating a balanced diet. "It's all kind of interconnected," she said.
How Do I Know If My Stress Levels Are Too High?
In times of uncertainty, you're allowed to feel whatever you're feeling, Dr. Klock explained — but it's important to recognize when stress has become overwhelming, so you can make healthy changes or get the professional help you need. Watch for physical symptoms of stress, like digestive problems or tension headaches, as well as changes to basic functions like sleep.
What Can I Do to Reduce Stress?
First, focus on getting a solid seven to nine hours of sleep each night. "If you're not getting enough sleep, then that influences your ability to self-regulate your own emotions, and then you get more stressed," Dr. Klock said. If you're having trouble sleeping, try setting an alarm on your phone to signal when it's time to wind down, then put your devices away and fall into a relaxing bedtime routine, which might include stretching, reading, or making a to-do list for the next day.
During the day, focus on other habits that can help keep your stress levels down, like exercising, getting outside, and engaging in mindful activities like coloring, drawing, and meditation — "anything that's quiet and soothing and requires some attention," Dr. Klock said. If social media is contributing to your stress, it might be time to set some limits on that as well.
If you're still struggling to manage stress, consider talking to your doctor or a therapist, who can help you find more effective ways to cope.