Did You Know Your State of Mind Influences the State of Your Immune System?
Can your mind heal your body? It may sound far-fetched that the power of your thoughts and emotions could exert physical, biological changes, but there are countless examples, both scientific and anecdotal, showing this possibility is very real.
Science journalist Jo Marchant shared numerous such examples, from Iraq war veterans and many others, in her book “Cure.” She told Scientific American:1
“There are now several lines of research suggesting that our mental perception of the world constantly informs and guides our immune system in a way that makes us better able to respond to future threats.
That was a sort of ‘aha’ moment for me — where the idea of an entwined mind and body suddenly made more scientific sense than an ephemeral consciousness that’s somehow separated from our physical selves.”
Your State of Mind Influences the State of Your Immune System
Your mind wields incredible power over the health of your immune system, for good or for bad. Stress, for instance, has a major negative influence on the function of your immune system, which is why you’ve probably noticed you’re more likely to catch a cold when you’re under a lot of stress.
And, in the event you do get sick, emotional stressors can actually make your cold and flu symptoms worse. As lead author Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D. a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, noted:3
“Inflammation is partly regulated by the hormone cortisol and when cortisol is not allowed to serve this function, inflammation can get out of control …
The immune system’s ability to regulate inflammation predicts who will develop a cold, but more importantly it provides an explanation of how stress can promote disease.
When under stress, cells of the immune system are unable to respond to hormonal control, and consequently, produce levels of inflammation that promote disease.
Because inflammation plays a role in many diseases such as cardiovascular, asthma and autoimmune disorders, this model suggests why stress impacts them as well.”
The opposite also holds true in that positive thoughts and attitudes are able to prompt changes in your body that strengthen your immune system, boost positive emotions, decrease pain and chronic disease, and provide stress relief.
One study found, for instance, that happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, and other positive psychological attributes are associated with a lower risk of heart disease.4
It’s even been scientifically shown that happiness can alter your genes! A team of researchers at UCLA showed that people with a deep sense of happiness and well-being had lower levels of inflammatory gene expression and stronger antiviral and antibody responses.5
The Placebo Effect Once Again Proves ‘Mind Over Matter’
By definition, a placebo is an inert, innocuous substance that has no effect on your body. However, the placebo effect, in which a patient believes he or she is getting an actual drug and subsequently feels better, despite receiving no “active” treatment at all, has become a well-recognized phenomenon.
As Marchant noted, there are many examples of the placebo effect in action:6
“Placebo painkillers can trigger the release of natural pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins. Patients with Parkinson’s disease respond to placebos with a flood of dopamine.
Fake oxygen, given to someone at altitude, has been shown to cut levels of neurotransmitters called prostaglandins (which dilate blood vessels, among other things, and are responsible for many of the symptoms of altitude sickness).”
As she explained, “none of these biological effects are caused by placebos themselves … they are triggered by our psychological response to those fake treatments.”7 The placebo effect was even found to produce marked effects even when no deception was involved at all.
In one trial, nearly 60 percent of patients given a placebo pill, who were told they were receiving a placebo, reported adequate relief from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms. Only 35 percent of those who received no treatment at all reported adequate relief.8
The exact mechanisms behind the placebo effect are still being explored, but there’s no denying that the effect is real. And, most likely, the placebo effect takes on many different forms, impacting brain mechanisms involved in expectation, anxiety and rewards.
In short, a placebo really does change your physical body, including your brain, in a number of different ways. Writing in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers noted:9
“First, as the placebo effect is basically a psychosocial context effect, these data indicate that different social stimuli, such as words and rituals of the therapeutic act, may change the chemistry and circuitry of the patient’s brain.
Second, the mechanisms that are activated by placebos are the same as those activated by drugs, which suggests a cognitive/affective interference with drug action.
Third, if prefrontal functioning is impaired, placebo responses are reduced or totally lacking, as occurs in dementia of the Alzheimer’s type.”
Virtual Reality Games and Distraction Help Relieve Pain
Your pain pathways are plastic — they can be molded and transformed using a variety of approaches, because so many areas of your brain and nervous system are at play.
This is another avenue by which your mind has incredible power over your physical symptoms, as you may be able to drastically reduce your experience of pain by distracting your mind.
Researchers on the burn unit at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, for instance, have capitalized on the fact that the brain’s attention centers can be “distracted away” from a painful experience. Burn victims frequently undergo painful wound care procedures and debridement.
Since we all respond strongly to visual stimuli, even the mere sight of wound care instruments can amplify pain for burn victims. So researchers developed an action video game, called “Snow World,” that burn patients could engage in during wound care.
The results have been astonishing — burn patients experienced more than 50 percent less pain during their burn treatments when playing Snow World. Your brain has limits to its processing power, so if you’re highly engaged in an activity, your brain will not be able to process all of the pain signals.
The net result is that you experience less pain. Similar studies show that when your mind is encouraged to “wander” away from painful stimuli, an opiate-rich region of your brain is stimulated, resulting in pain suppression.10 Marchant told Scientific American:11
“This is just one of many lines of research telling us that the brain plays a big role in determining the level of pain we feel. Of course any physical damage is important, but it is neither sufficient nor necessary for us to feel pain. So I think we’ve got our approach to pain all wrong.
… Our focus is almost exclusively on trying to banish it with drugs, which is incredibly costly and causes huge problems with side effects and addiction.
Research like Snow World shows the potential of psychological approaches for treating pain: both to maximize the effectiveness of drugs and perhaps in some cases to replace them.”
How to Heal a Broken Heart
Most people have suffered from a “broken heart” or two during their lifetime. This may occur after a romantic breakup, a death in your family or anytime an important relationship is cut short. The extreme emotional stress can lead to stress cardiomyopathy, which triggers symptoms that are very similar to those of a typical heart attack, including chest pain, shortness of breath, low blood pressure, and even congestive heart failure.
In most cases, a typical heart attack occurs due to blockages in the coronary arteries that stop blood flow and cause heart cells to die, leading to irreversible damage. But people with broken heart syndrome often have normal arteries without significant blockages.
The symptoms occur due to the emotional stress, so when the stress begins to die down, your heart is able to recover. In this case, your mind once again can play a powerful role in helping your broken heart to recover. Lifehack compiled several useful steps to employ toward this end:12
- Deal With Your Feelings Head-On: You may be tempted to run from your pain or hide from it (think overworking or substance abuse). A better option is to face your feelings, accept them and feel them. Only then will you be able to move past them.
- Let Go of Guilt. If you made mistakes in your past relationship, say your apologies, if necessary. Then, let go of the guilt and move on. The Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) can be very effective in helping you to do this.
- Be Easy on Yourself: Understand that going through a breakup or loss is hard. Allow yourself to fully experience all the emotions that come along with it and don’t judge yourself when you need extra time to process them.
- Immerse Yourself in Your Creative Passions: If you love to write, sing, dance or create in another way, allow yourself to become lost in the creative process. It will help you to express your thoughts and emotions in a healthy, productive way.
- Choose a Positive Mindset: Remaining negative won’t help you in the long run. Make a choice each day to look on the bright side and be open to positive new beginnings.
When your broken heart begins to mend, you can help yourself to further feel better by focusing on the following positive habits:13
Lead a healthy lifestyle
Focus on your ambitions and goals
Surround yourself with positive, supportive people
Forgive yourself and others
Get in touch with your spiritual side via nature, meditation and/or prayer
Continue going to the places you love, even if they remind you of your past; make new experiences there
Open yourself to starting new relationships
Do something completely for yourself, by yourself
Break any harmful patterns (i.e., recognize if you tend to date the same type of person that is not right for you)
Learn from your mistakes
Uncontrolled Anger May Be Deadly
Anger is a universal emotion felt across all ages, genders and cultures. It’s not necessarily bad, as anger prepares your body to fight off a threat, which can be life-saving in the appropriate circumstances. However, if anger isn’t managed and expressed properly, it can lead to serious consequences to your health, relationships, work and more.
Letting your anger out explosively may be harmful because it triggers surges in stress hormones and injures blood vessel linings. One study from Washington State University found that people over the age of 50 who express their anger by lashing out are more likely to have calcium deposits in their coronary arteries — an indication that you’re at a high risk for a heart attack — than their mellower peers.14
A systematic review involving data on 5,000 heart attacks, 800 strokes and 300 cases of arrhythmia also revealed that anger increases your risk of heart attack, arrhythmia and stroke — and the risk increases with frequent anger episodes.15 So how do you know if your anger is crossing the line in terms of your health? The Epoch Times suggested:16
“If you begin to notice that you are on edge quite a lot, do things that you later regret, are quick to react instead of respond, and that you have people in your life who have told you that you tend to get angry, it might be helpful to do something about it.”
Tips for Healthy Anger Management
Anger management can take on many forms, including cognitive behavior therapy or a newer technique called compassion-focused therapy. The latter helps you to self-soothe and deal with the negative feelings fueling your anger.17 To manage anger that comes along with everyday life, you can also try these tips from the Australian Psychological Society:18
- Identify your anger triggers (people, different environments, etc.)
- Notice the physical warning signs of anger (shoulder tightness, increased heart rate, hot face, etc.)
- Engage in an anger-management strategy that works for you (breathing techniques, changing your environment, relaxation strategies, EFT, etc.)
- Practice your anger-management strategies (imagine being in a situation that makes you angry and using one of your strategies to control your feelings)
If you have a short fuse when it comes to anger, I recommend using energy psychology techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). EFT can reprogram your body’s reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life by stimulating different energy meridian points in your body. It’s done by tapping on specific key locations with your fingertips while custom-made verbal affirmations are said repeatedly.
This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist. Making a point to be more mindful — focusing on what you’re doing and the sensations you’re experiencing right now — can also be helpful in improving your mental and emotional outlook. When you’re in the present moment, your mind will have less chance to wander and ruminate on stressful or anger-provoking incidents, which can help you to let go of your angry feelings.
For times when you do get angry, try to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Can you work out this misunderstanding with the other party? Will you learn more about yourself and your own faults? Be sure to also express the anger in a constructive manner, channeling your angry energy into exercise or cleaning your house, for instance.
Work on Accepting Yourself for Increased Health and Happiness
Whether you’re facing health challenges, want to manifest healing or simply want to increase your well-being, channeling positive emotions is in your best interest. To a large extent, being happy is a choice you need to make, much like choosing to exercise or eat right. Happiness comes from within — it’s not dictated by circumstance alone. This is why, if you truly want to be happy, you need to work on yourself first.
And the health benefits mentioned above, like a significantly reduced risk of heart attack and other cardiac events or the ability to help your body heal, should provide ample motivation for doing so. Interestingly, self-acceptance appears to be one of the most important factors that can produce a more consistent sense of happiness.
In a survey of 5,000 people by the charity Action for Happiness, people were asked to rate themselves between 1 and 10 on 10 habits that are scientifically linked to happiness.19 While all 10 habits were strongly linked to overall life satisfaction, acceptance was the strongest predictor. In all, the survey resulted in the following “10 Keys to Happier Living,” which together spell out the acronym GREAT DREAM:
- Giving: do things for others
- Relating: connect with people
- Exercising: take care of your body
- Appreciating: notice the world around you
- Trying out: keep learning new things
- Direction: have goals to look forward to
- Resilience: find ways to bounce back
- Emotion: take a positive approach
- Acceptance: be comfortable with who you are
- Meaning: be part of something bigger
- 1, 6, 7, 11 Scientific American January 19, 2016
- 2 Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences April 2, 2012
- 3 Science Daily April 2, 2012
- 4 Psychol Bull. 2012 Jul;138(4):655-91
- 5 PNAS July 25, 2013
- 8 PLoS ONE December 22, 2010, 5(12)
- 9 Neuropsychopharmacology. 2011 Jan;36(1):339-54.
- 10 National Academy of Sciences October 4, 2013
- 12, 13 Lifehack
- 14 USA Today March 7, 2007
- 15 European Heart Journal March 3, 2014
- 16, 17, 18 Epoch Times January 20, 2016
- 19 Action for Happiness