Have you ever gotten sick right after you have finished something big? (Like, for instance, completing an intense semester of school?) It’s happened to me before so I put on my super sleuth hat and set off to find out why.
It’s actually got a name—it is a phenomenon referred to as “the let-down effect”. Psychologist Marc Schoen, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California–Los Angeles and the author of When Relaxation Is Hazardous to Your Health, explains that this is a pattern in which people come down with an illness or experience exacerbation of a chronic condition after a concentrated period of stress ends. Sound familiar to any USG students?
Basically, it comes down to your “flight or flight” system protecting you during times of stress. When we were cave people, those hormones like cortisol and adrenaline would do things like speed up our heart rate to help us get away from a saber-tooth tiger. (Yes, I know that man and saber-teeth tigers weren’t around at the same time, but you get the drift). Now, the same thing happens when we are stressed when sitting in traffic or having to perform on an exam. Once the “danger” is over, there is a suppression of the immune response triggered by the easing of stress (basically, to give your body a break from protective hormones). That’s when you get sick.
So what to do to avoid the let-down effect?
- Get plenty of exercise and sleep
- Eat as healthy as you can
- Take time to decompress on a regular basis (with meditation, rhythmic breathing or other relaxation techniques)
Is it too late for all of the above? Have you already been skipping the gym, staying up until all hours and embracing a diet of pizza and Doritos? Never fear. You can mitigate the let-down effect by helping your body de-stress slowly. “Just like you have a cool-down period after exercising, you want your body to have a tapering down of stress,” Schoen explains. The key, he says, is “to keep your body slightly revved up to keep your immune system from downshifting abruptly” when the stress ends. The best way to do this, Schoen says, is to seek the right intensity of physical and mental stimulation. For physical stimulation, “moderate exercise in quick bursts—such as jogging or walking stairs for five or six minutes at a time, several times a day—can help,” Schoen says. For mental stimulation, do challenging math problems, crossword puzzles or computer games, or play chess under time pressure for 30 to 60 minutes at a time, he suggests. He adds that you should do these activities for three days after a stressful period and you’ll improve your odds of emerging from the aftermath of stress feeling good, not sick.
So what am I doing after my exams are finished? I’m ditching the diet soda and Combos and eating healthier. Yes, I may even play some games of Scrabble and always try to take the stairs instead of the elevator. And to decompress, some of my classmates and I will be going to a Korean spa in Baltimore for the day. Could “Nurses at the Spa” be a topic for my next blog? Perhaps, but there may be nudity involved so I’ll have to see how it goes. (Want to keep the blog PG-13, you know.) Stay healthy, peeps!