Stressful situations you can actively cope with may not weaken your immune system.
Scientists have known for some time now that stress can be the cause of health problems because stress seems to depress the ability of a person’s immune system to combat illness. However, we all face different types of stressful situations in our lives. Sometimes we are faced with situations involving stress we can actively cope with by doing things that address the source of the stress. For example, if a person is annoyed with a coworker’s behavior, she can actively cope with her stress by confronting the coworker and discussing the issue to sort things out. Other times we are faced with situations involving stress we can only passively cope with by trying not to focus on the stress. For example, if a loved one dies all you can do is try to deal with your negative feelings because you are powerless to change the person’s death (the source of the stress). One question that scientists from the
had was whether these
two different types of stressful situations both negatively affect a person’s
immune system. To explore that question
they conducted an experiment. University
What was the research about?
The experiment exposed 34 undergraduate students to three different types of conditions. To simulate a stressful situation involving active coping, participants were given a time-paced memory test. To simulate a stressful situation involving passive coping, participants watched a video showing various surgical operations. There was also a control condition in which participants watched a boring documentary. As a way to examine how the stressful situations influenced the participant’s immune system, the researchers took samples of saliva from the participant’s mouth before, during and after each stressful situation. In the saliva, the researchers measured how much of secretory immunglobulin A (S-IgA) was present. S-IgA is used by the body to protect against the invasion of microorganisms and toxins. The less S-IgA present, the higher the risk of health problems such as upper respiratory infection. To measure stress levels, participants completed a questionnaire after each saliva sample was collected.
Results showed there were no differences in how stressed participants felt during the memory test and while watching the surgery video. Even though participants felt equally stressed in both conditions, their levels of S-IgA increased in the active stress condition (the memory test) but decreased in the passive stress condition (the surgery video). This indicates that participants in the passive stress condition were less defended against microorganism and toxin invasions. On the other hand, participants in the active stress condition were actually better defended than normal because their S-IgA levels had increased in response to the stressful situation.
Why should it matter to me?
Based on evidence from this experiment it seems all stressful situations are not created equal. Passive stress situations seem to have a debilitating effect on at least one aspect of the body’s immune system functioning. Active stress situations, however, seem to actually boost one of the body’s protective actions. If this effect extends to other aspects of the body’s immune system, then people may want to be more careful what types of stressful situations they expose themselves to. Also, when deciding how to cope with stress, people may want to try and choose more active-coping strategies. By actively coping with your stress, instead of just passively trying to ignore it, you may better protect your health in the process.
Source: Bosch, J. A., Kelder, A., Veerman, E. C. I., Hoogstraten, J., Nieuw Amerongen, A. V., De Geus, E. J. C. (2001). Differential effects of active versus passive coping on secretory immunity. Psychophpysiology, 38, 836-846.