The Physical Implications of Fear
Many people find the idea of a little fear, in the form of a scary movie or a haunted house, enjoyable. It’s thrilling. These types of experiences create a spike in cortisol which can increase the heart rate and give you a burst of energy. This can seem harmless, because it’s usually only over a short period of time and once it’s over, you will typically go back to feeling however you did before the movie. If you don’t maybe horror/thriller movies aren’t for you. When you translate this response to fear to the real world and in a situation like the one we are currently in where there is a global pandemic causing a constant or even fluctuating level of worry and fear for many people, the resulting physiological changes can be detrimental to your health and feed into a cycle of more anxiety and fear.
Anxiety about the unknown will activate the fear centre in the brain called the amygdala which acts like an alarm, interfacing with the stress system to keep our body and mind on high alert. After the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands, which release epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream causing your heart rate to go up, increases your breathing rate, and increases your alertness. Sugar is also released to provide fuel. This cascade leads to activation of the second component of the stress response system, the hyothalamic-pituitary-axis (HPA axis). The HPA axis relies on hormonal signals to keep the sympathetic nervous system fired up and the hypothalamus releases a hormone that ultimately leads to the release of cortisol from your adrenal glands. After the threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks into gear, calming everything down.
Unfortunately, merely the suggestion of danger, even if it is never experienced, is enough to trigger the amygdala and activate the stress response. Many people are unable to find a way to put the brakes on stress and chronic low-level stress keeps the HPA axis activated. After a while, this can have an effect on the body that contributes to the health problems associated with chronic stress. Persistent epinephrine surges can damage blood vessels and arteries and increase blood pressure which raises the risk of heart attacks or strokes. Elevated cortisol levels create physiological changes that helps to replenish the body’s energy (glucose) stores that are depleted during the stress response but inadvertently contribute to the buildup of fat tissue and cause weight gain. Further, the immune system can bear the brunt as these physiological effects of chronic stress damages cells in the body which elevates inflammation levels resulting in a sterile immune response. This can create an imbalance in the immune function because the immune system is reacting to multiple “threats.”
Fortunately, we can all learn techniques to counter the stress response, and this will help us far beyond the pandemic years. Here are a few things to consider in order to improve your immune response as we head into another pandemic winter:
Engage in moderate exercise, at least 30 minutes, 3x/week (ideally 150 minutes/week). Moderate means at around 40% maximum workload, when you can still talk but not sing. In one study comparing students exposed to the same psychological stressors, the exercising students had low levels of inflammation and elevated mood throughout. Interesting, higher intensity was not as effective at protecting mental health or reducing inflammation.
Double down on your efforts at eating healthy. Stick to unprocessed foods, low sugar, low (or no) alcohol, and lots of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables. Think about creating a foundational diet with your core healthy foods, and then incorporate some treats. This way you will ensure you are still getting in all of the foods that you know make you feel good and the treats (piece of chocolate and a glass of wine, for example) are on top of your foundation.
Get a treatment plan together for yourself with your health care provider and stick with it, at least until spring. Ensure it includes vitamin D and a good multivitamin and keep other vitamins such as vitamin C on hand for when you are exposed to extra stress or fighting a cold.
Commit to engaging in a mindfulness practice daily for even 10 minutes, whether that is meditation through one of the many apps available or a short yoga practice. Mindfulness will improve mental health, decrease the stress response, and maybe even increase telomere length (think longevity).
Sometimes it is actually possible to eliminate the stressor. If you can, do it. Change jobs, end the relationship, whatever you can do to reduce the external stress in your life.
The current state of the world is so challenging for so many people. Whether it’s fear around getting sick, fear of our childrens’ well-being and safety, fear for our livelihoods, fear for our disenfranchised, or fear for our planet, it may be well-founded but it is possible to lessen the impact that it has on your health and even on your perception of the world. All we can do is get through this one day at a time, continue to look out for one another and our families, and control what is in our power to control and that is how we look after ourselves and how we interact with those around us.