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Exploring the Connection Between Stress and Your Immune System

Quantifying and understanding the impact of mental wellness on health requires cutting across multiple scientific fields. One trailblazer attempting to do this is Dr. George Slavich, the founder of the Laboratory for Stress Assessment at UCLA. He is doing so by straddling the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and immunology, and applying a holistic approach to understanding the downstream effects of stress. 

This multidisciplinary approach has yielded important insights into how our experience of the world gets represented by our brains and how that influences our immune system (and vice versa, how our immune system impacts how we experience the world). 

Some key concepts developed by his lab include:

  • “Social Safety Theory”: as a species, we evolved in the context of needing to belong to a social group for survival. As a result, our individual brains are very finely tuned to sensing potential threats to our position in the groups we are part of. Today these risks might take the form of a nasty boss that can fire us any moment, an angry driver that cuts us off, or a post on social media that makes us feel bad about our position in life
  • Chronic social stress: our ability to anticipate potential threats in the future (e.g., an upcoming performance review with that mean boss) activates our stress response in advance, even though that threat has not been realized. That response can stay switched on for days.
  • Psychological stress impacts gene expression: using brain imaging, Dr. Slavich and his team have shown how the stress response has a direct impact on the expression of genes, particularly those that upregulate the immune system’s inflammatory response. This discovery has created a whole new field of research called social genomics
  • Chronic stress = Chronic inflammation: one negative effect of an overactive immune system is chronic inflammation (sustained release of cytokines throughout our body) which in turn has been connected to the advance of many chronic diseases

The clear demonstration of the link between our perception of the world and our immune system will hopefully increase investment in the development of better tools for people to manage stress.

Go Deeper: To introduce stress management into general medical practice, Dr. Slavich’s lab developed a system to measure stress known as the Stress and Adversity Inventory. To address stress, he recommends mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy.

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