How to not let stress harm your immune system

Between remote working, home learning, social distancing and uncertainty over the coronavirus pandemic, you may be a little anxious. But keeping stress levels in check is important for immunity.

We could all be forgiven for feeling a little unsettled right now, with our lives changing so dramatically and quickly amid the global spread of coronavirus.

It’s impacted the way we work, learn and socialise, as well as our financial security.

“It is normal to feel some worry in these uncertain times, and the many changes to daily life are likely to cause some level of distress in many people,” says Prof Philip Batterham, a researcher at the ANU’s Centre for Mental Health Research.

How stress affects our health and immunity

If worry turns into a more disruptive level of stress, our immune function can be weakened, with many studies revealing specific physiological changes in people who have experienced high levels of distress.

“These include changes in cortisol levels, oxidative stress (reduced ability to repair damage to the body) and changes in release of cytokines, which regulate immune function,” says Prof Batterham.

In fair weather circumstances, cortisol and cytokines step up to help the body manage injury and initiate healing for short-term challenges, but long-term elevations can lead to an accumulation of stress hormones that can cause wear and tear on the immune system and increase risk of disease and illness.

Still, Prof Batterham says feelings of anxiety in relation to coronavirus are unlikely to significantly influence your risk of becoming infected.

“The impacts of stress on the immune system primarily come from chronic stress,” he says.

“The acute stress people are feeling right now is unlikely to be particularly important for immune susceptibility, but putting in place good strategies to minimise stress over the next few months will be important for people’s health as our community recovers from the COVID-19 outbreak.”

How to lower your stress levels

Maintain perspective

Mental health organisation Beyond Blue says it’s important to remember medical, scientific and health experts around the world are working hard to contain the virus and develop a vaccine as quickly as possible.

Access quality information, but keep a lid on it

While it’s good to be informed, the 24/7 rolling coverage of coronavirus can make it hard to switch off from the issue.

Consider limiting media intake if you find it upsetting.

And make sure the information you do take in is accurate.

“Some information people receive, particularly on social media, may be inaccurate or sensationalistic,” says Prof Batterham.

“Sometimes different information sources are in conflict or seem to change rapidly over time.

“These aspects of communication are likely to increase stress for many people, and may even worsen anxiety or other existing mental health problems.”

Get quality sleep

Sleep expert Dr Carmel Harrington says one of the key functions our body performs while we’re asleep is keeping our immune system primed.

“Natural killer cells fire up when we sleep,” she says.

“If we’re not getting enough sleep our natural killer cell activity can drop by up to 50 per cent.

“What these cells do is go along and kill off viruses and bacteria and mutated cells, and recognise foreign bodies in the body and blow them up.

“We all know we’re more vulnerable to getting sick if we’re not sleeping well, but this is the reason why.”

Stay connected

Even if we need to be physically distant, staying socially connected remains important at this time, according to Prof Batterham.

“Fortunately, we live in an era where technology makes it possible to remain socially active,” he says.

“There is phone, video conferencing, emails, texts, online chats, letters, and many other ways to stay connected, particularly for those who live alone.”


Getting out to exercise is one of the four reasons Australians are allowed to leave their homes, such is its importance in maintaining mental wellbeing.

“Staying physically active is connected to mental wellbeing, so it’s important to find ways to include some form of physical activity into your daily routine,” says Prof Batterham.

Where to get help if you are feeling overwhelmed

Prof Batterham suggests talking to your GP or a psychologist if you feel like you’re not coping.

“Recent measures have been put into place to enable psychologists to provide services to people remotely via telehealth consultations (phone/video),” he says.

Beyond Blue has free government-funded counselling available to support people’s mental health during this crisis, while The Black Dog Institute has a page of useful resources relating to coronavirus.

Instant Consult offers on-the-spot online GP consultations and can issue medical certificates, prescriptions, radiology and pathology requests and specialist referrals.

For the latest official health and government advice on coronavirus, visit:

Written by Claire Burke