Psychological Stress and
HAROLD G. KOENIG & HARVEY JAY COHEN
Because chemicals produced by immune cells signal the brain, and the brain in turn sends chemical signals to regulate the immune system, the two systems are able to signal each other continuously and rapidly in response to external or internal threats to homeostasis. Just as the brain can send hormonal and nervous system signals that suppress immune functioning in response to stress, disruption of the regulatory influence of the brain on the immune system can lead to increased immune activity and, if directed against the body's own tissues and organs, greater susceptibility to inflammatory and autoimmune disease (Sternberg & Gold, 1997). For instance, animals whose brain-immune communications have been disrupted experimentally are at much greater risk for adverse outcomes from inflammatory disease. Reestablishment of those communications can reduce inflammation and moderate immune activity.
This chapter examines autoimmune disorders that are associated with excessive immune activity and inflammation and discusses research that links the onset and course of autoimmune conditions with psychosocial stress. The use of religion by patients to cope with autoimmune disorders such as psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and systemic lupus erythematosus also is explored, as are the effects of religious-spiritual interventions on the disease course. Throughout most of this book thus far, the effects of psychological stress and emotional distress have been discussed in terms of their ability to weaken or suppress immune function. There is another effect, however, that stress can have on the immune system that appears to be the exact opposite. Psychosocial stress may interfere with the ability of the body to regulate immune functioning, resulting in the excessive or