Stress-Related Illness and the Immune System

The Immune System: is designed to defend the body against bacteria and viruses.

It works in 3 ways:

  • It creates a barrier that prevents antigens from entering the body.
  •         If one does get it, it will detect it and stop it from making more.
  •         lf the virus does start to reproduce the immune system will start to attack it.




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Stress-Related Illness and the Immune System

Kiecolt-Glaser et al (1984)


Natural experiment-looked at whether short-term stress (exams) had an effect on the immune system. Blood samples taken 1 month before and again during exam period. NK cell activity was reduced by 2nd sample. Showed that acute stressors have a negative effect.


P: The study may have low internal validity.

E: This is because it is a natural study and therefore may have been effected by extraneous variables.

J: This means that the results may not be correct.

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Stress-Related Illness and the Immune System

Marucha et al (1998)


Looked at how stress affects how long a wound takes to heal. Gave pps 'punch biopsy' in the mouth of students either during summer holidays or before an exam. Found it took 40% longer to heal when during exam period.


P: The study is good as it is ethically sound.

E: This is because the participants were already stressed and therefore were not caused any stress.

J: This means that the participants were protected from harm and ethical guidelines were followed.

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Stress-Related Illness and the Immune System

Kiecolt-Glaser et al (2005)


Looked at how relationship conflicts affect wound healing. Gave couples 'blister wounds' on the arm. Found that they took longer to heal after conversations whch were conflicting. Also looked at women who were seperated and compared them with women who were married. Found worse immune functioning in the seperated women.


P: The study is reliable.

E: This is because the study uses measurable, quantative evidence (cell blood count).

J: Therefore this means the study would be easily repeated.

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Stress-Related Illness and the Immune System

Malarkey et al (1994)


Studied 90 newly-weds over a 24 hour period. They were asked to discuss and resolve marital issues which would causes conflict. This conflict caused changes in adrenaline which could cause poorer immune functioning.


P: Malarkey et al's study suffers from low population validity.

E: There were only 90 participants in the study.

J: Therefore the study cannot be generalised to the wider population.

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Stress-Related Illness and the Immune System

The effects of the stress can sometimes enhance the immune system.

Evans et al (1994)


What did he do?

  • Looked at sIgA-the mucous coating of the throat, mouth, lungs etc.
  • Arranged for students to give talks to other students (acute).
  • The students showed an increase in sIgA.
  • However, during the students exam period there were decreased levels of sIgA as it stretched over weeks.

What did he conclude?

  • Evans concluded that acute stress makes the immune system more efficient and chronic stress causes it to be less efficient.
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Stress-Related Illness and the Immune System



P: The research has real life applications.

E: This is because we know now that if somebody is suffering from illness we should reduce their stress levels to help them get better.

J: Therefore the studies have helped in the real life work and therefore have some merit even if they are flawed.

P: The studies are supported by figures from industry.

E: People in stressful jobs take more time off work ill than those in less stressful jobs.

J: Therefore this gives wider credibility to the studies.

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Stress-Related Illness and the Immune System



P:There is a great deal of individual differences within stress and the immune system.

E: Women have been shown to be effected by stress more then men, and elderly people have more ill health due to stress compared to younger people.

J: This means the studies may be over emphasising the effects of stress on everybody.

P: Evans et al has proven that some stress is actually a good thing.

E: Acute stress can be good for the immune system as shown by the study Evans did (in which he...)

J: Therefore the conclusions drawn from the research are very mixed.

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Stress-Related Illness and the Immune System

The relationship between stress and the immune system is not conclusive. Lazarus (1992) suggests there are various reasons why this is so:

  • Health is affected by many other factors (including genetics and lifestyle). Due to this there may be variance left that can be accounted for by stress.
  • Health is generally fairly stable and slow to change. It makes it difficult to demonstrate that exposure to a particular stressors have caused a change in health.
  • To demonstrate how stress affects long-term health would require continuous monitoring over time. This is expensive and impractical. Therefore there is limited research into this and mostly concentrates on the short-term affects.
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