Why Emotional Stress Puts You at Risk for an Autoimmune Disease

keep calm written on sand

Can stress make you sick?

This is a common question. Read on to find out why it indeed does.


We are bombarded day in and day out with stress. From our job demands that follow us home via email or texts to our family obligations that never seem to end and the challenges of everyday life. Tack on extraneous, often unnecessary, stimuli such as mindless social media use and you have a perfect set up for unrelenting stress. 


Where else does emotional stress come from?


Much of our real time stress can also be traced back to experiences we had in childhood. This happens when we experience a trauma, either something overt, such as abuse or neglect, or something less obvious, such as not feeling validated by an authority figure or caregiver. Our reactions to these initial experiences set up stress responses to current experiences. This happens because they remind us of these past experiences, even subconsciously. These responses change the wiring and architecture of our brain. Although it’s a valiant effort by our magnificent bodies to protect us, it’s much more profound than most realize.


Why can’t we just adapt to the stress?


Our stress resilience is very related to our lived experience from when we were in the womb onwards. We don’t even have to be aware of these experiences for them to impact us. For some, this can be quite profound. Since we are each a unique individual, we manifest and handle stress in different ways.


We know that this kind of stress, one that is chronic and not seeming to challenge us positively or resolve, causes illness and disease, both acute and chronic. This kind of stress is unique in the sense that it is not what our genes were designed to identify as stress. They were designed to prioritize survival from starvation or a predator not a manipulative boss, traffic or ever increasing demands of what society has willingly or unwillingly decided is this modern life.

Studies have shown that a chronic emotional stress reaction will be part of what triggers an autoimmune illness, yet it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding how emotional stress impacts us. The truth is chronic emotional stress adversely affects your immune system, metabolism and hormonal balance. And since it’s all connected, it can be a cascade.


How do we process stress?


There are two primary pathways through which we experience stress:

  • Neuroendocrine pathway
  • Central Autonomic network


Both can change the way our brain functions and can have profound systemic effects. The first is the Neuroendocrine Pathway that carries our stress hormones. When triggered, epinephrine and cortisol increase via our brain and adrenal glands. It can be responsible for the productive part of us in that our hormones and neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, work in concert to help motivate us into action to protect ourselves or go for that promotion. There is a sweet spot to this kind of stress. It goes awry when persistent due to the roller coaster effects of cortisol production. Too much of a good thing isn’t always so good. This chronic cortisol elevation leads to chronic inflammation as the body perceives a threat somewhere so it’s mobilizing protection in the form of inflammation. 


The Science Behind It…


Chronically elevated cortisol breaks down our gut lining. Since most of our immune system is housed there, this makes us more susceptible to infections. When that happens, our immune system starts to work overtime and becomes hypervigilant. This reaction starts “protecting” us from our own tissue - think about common autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Rheumatoid arthritis or Inflammatory Bowel Disorders such as Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn’s disease. Some common signs and symptoms are feeling:


  • Wired yet tired
  • Unable to focus with brain fog
  • Problems with digestion 
  • Difficulty sleeping


Over time, the body may even halt production of cortisol, a protective mechanism of sorts that puts the brakes on in the form of profound fatigue so you are forced to rest. This is most certainly an SOS call from the body to stop, sit and listen. 


The second, lesser known or addressed, is our Central Autonomic Network of which our Gut - Brain pathway is part. The star of this pathway is our Vagus nerve. Our Vagus nerve is quite extensive and extends deep into our core and extremities. Think of it as a net that is draped over us starting at our head and neck and continuing down our entire body. It’s not just superficial, it penetrates deep into our tissues and organs including our GI system. This nerve is responsible for things like:


  • Digestion
  • Breathing
  • Heartbeat


It actually functions optimally when in a calm, centered state also called rest and digest state. If it gets stuck and it’s not helping to regulate your nervous system, you may experience many of the same signs and symptoms as a dysregulated neuroendocrine pathway, including anxiety and irritability. The vagus nerve is more influenced by sensory interventions than by other interventions such as supplements. This is important to note when you have any chronic disease including an autoimmune disease. Healing or reversing a disease state will only take place when you are in a rest and digest state with the ability to repair. 


Tips to help feel more calm…


There is growing attention on how to manage our stress around our neuroendocrine pathway. Botanical supplements, such as rhodiola or ashwagandha, are gentle yet effective adaptogens. They are a great option during times of elevated stress. Ideally, you would be addressing the root cause of this stress and dealing with it simultaneously. Some ways include talk therapy with a trauma-informed practitioner, clear boundary and limit setting and exercise. There are many other modes and you could employ your intuition as well to see what might help you.


But lesser known interventions for our vagus nerve are equally important. These can often be the key to moving the needle when it comes to shifting into healing. Some interventions include:


  • Intentional breathing - there are many techniques but simple is often sufficient. Inhale for 5 counts and then exhale for 10 counts. The twice-as-long exhale is key. This sends a message to your brain that you are safe and can relax.
  • Body work such as self massage or having someone massage you. There’s a reason it induces that relaxed, pleasurable feeling. It also sends a message of safety. Massage of the head and neck and abdomen can be quite powerful as the Vagus nerve is quite powerful in those areas.
  • Splashing cold water on your face. Although this may seem counterintuitive, a theory is it actually interrupts the fight or flight overdrive and acts as a reset. Anyone remember the movie Moonstruck? Cher slaps Nicholas Cage in the face and says “snap out of it” when he’s in a bit of a funk. While we don’t necessarily recommend this, you get the idea. ūüôā


There are many more interventions that you could try but go ahead and give these a go to start. Know that this is real self care. This along with practicing gentle loving kindness to yourself will set you on your path to healing bringing you that much closer to living life to its fullest potential.

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