We all know that long-term stress is bad. And we also suspect that short bursts of stress can be beneficial at sharpening our senses and focusing our body’s resources on the immediate priorities. This stems, of course, from our evolutionary history, when our stress response evolved to help our survival in life or death situations.
Now a researcher at Stanford University, Firdaus Dhabhar, has found evidence that a little stress can boost our immune systems. Yes, boost. Stress orthodoxy tells us that stress supresses our immune system because it is not needed for our immediate fight-or-flight survival. But Dhabhar’s research shows that short bursts of stress can mobilise your immune system.
This makes a bit of sense to me. If my was ancestor was about to be attacked by a bear, it would be helpful to have a primed immune system, ready to deal with the sepsis introduced by bite or claw injuries.
Dhabhar’s research shows that babies crying after a vaccination jab, and patients anxious before a knee operation have boosted immune responses. Transient stress seems to boost parts of our immune system, whilst chronic stress starts to shut the whole lot down.
There is plenty more to learn and years’ more research to carry out, but this shows that our bodies are far from straightforward in the way they respond. And the simple take away for me (a confirmed medical scaredy cat) is that there is nothing wrong with a little anxiety ahead of a procedure; it may even help recovery.