Officials say students’ stress and immune systems are linked

Nursing major, Emily Bawden looks for study materials during midterm weeks. She said her classmates as well as herself tend to get sick more often when stressed. (Gianluca Cuestas) 

Common colds and viruses often spread rampantly from roommates to classmates to strangers around the time of midterms. BYU health authorities Maureen Rice and Janelle Macintosh said when students experience stress they are more susceptible to the common cold and other viruses.

Rice is a BYU clinical professor and psychologist in the Stress and Biofeedback services. She said students face a variety of different factors during the middle of the semester that can affect their level of stress. Students deal with classes and homework which can impact their sleep schedule and diet.

“There’s a lot more demands during the middle of the semester,” Rice said. “If you have a heavy course load and your professors give you a lot of reading or you have a lot more homework to do, I think it gets overwhelming, a little more stressful for people to sort it out.” 

These demands can become chronic stress when presented in an overwhelming amount, according to Macintosh, an assistant professor in the BYU College of Nursing.

“Often this (chronic stress) happens a lot during midterms. When you’ve been in this stressful situation for six or seven weeks your body has been in that stress and now it’s asking to be more stressed out,” Macintosh said. “The body just does not recover from that as quickly. You don’t have the reserves.”

Rice said stress can have a number of effects on a young adult. A student can experience shallow breathing, stomach distress, increased emotional sensitivity and a weakened immune system as an attempt to conserve energy, according to Rice.

“If you have a high stress level your immune system isn’t going to be working as efficiently and you’re probably going to be susceptible to a lot more illness stuff that’s going around,” Rice said. 

October is the beginning of cold and flu season, which happens to coincide with midterms, according to Macintosh. She also said students have been existing in an environment of stress for the past month and a half and during midterms that stress is boosted, which results in poor eating and sleeping habits.

“You’re not eating well, not sleeping well, it’s cold and flu season and your body is already in a stressed state,” Macintosh said. “You add all those things into the blender and you come up with students getting sick at midterms.”

BYU nursing student Emily Bawden said she notices the correlation between stress and sickness in hers and her peers’ lives.

“Everybody that I know has been getting some type of cold or flu lately and it tends to always be like that this time of year,” Bawden said. “I think people are more prone to infection, to getting it, when they’re so stressed. Their immune systems are weaker and it’s easier to contract.”

Macintosh recommended students remember to always wash their hands and carry hand sanitizer, in order to better protect themselves against illness.

“It seems like such an old school or simple thing to do but always wash your hands,” Macintosh said. “Keep your hands clean after you touch desks and doorknobs. Don’t put your hands toward your mouth or your nose because those are ways that the bacteria or viruses can enter your body.”

Implementing stress management practices can have a positive impact on a student’s immune system, and, according to Rice, can help students study, concentrate, memorize and focus better.

The Stress and Biofeedback services on the BYU campus have resources available for students online and in its offices, but Rice admitted “they could be better utilized” by students.

“I think people get going and their days get so packed and booked that it’s really hard for them to say, ‘Oh I’m going to take a 10-minute break or I’m going to take a two-minute breathing break.’ It’s hard for them to do that,” Rice said.

However, Rice said she receives positive feedback when students do follow through with their stress management techniques.

“Here’s what students tell me: ‘When I do that I do feel a lot better, even though I’ve had a very busy, rushed day,'” Rice said. “But when I forget my days are really stressed.”

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