Some time back I wrote about how having a negative attitude is seriously bad for our health. Well, it goes even further than that. Science is also telling us that a negative attitude will depress the immune system, making us less able to fight off infection.
The Corona pandemic has made us all aware of how important a strong immune system is. Good diet, exercise and weight management all play a role in maintaining good immunity, but how many of us have ever given a thought to how our thinking affects our immune system?
We all know of the placebo effect – where patients are given a sugar pill but told that it’s a new miracle cure. If they believe, they get better! The mind is strong enough to cause the body’s defense systems, the immune system, to fight off the infection and repair the damage. This works in reverse as well. Negative programming can lead to a reduction of immune function and ultimately, reduce our chances of fighting off the corona virus!
Over the last many years a number of researchers have shown that attitude can positively, or negatively, affect our immune system. In 2003 team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin discovered that people who dwelt on negative issues had a reduced immune response to a flu shot1. The team studied how the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with depression, reacted to positive and negative thoughts. People who dwelt on distressing episodes in their life had markedly lower antibody levels after a flu shot. By contrast, those who dwelt on positive episodes developed higher antibody levels. According to the team leader, Dr. Richard Davidson, “This study establishes that people with a pattern of brain activity that has been associated with positive [emotions] are also the ones to show the best response to the flu vaccine.”
Another study by Italian and UK researchers, published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics2, reveals that depressed elderly people have fewer lymphocytes and T-cells – white blood cells crucial for fighting disease.
Dr. Steve Cole, from the University of California, Los Angeles, has also been studying how our thinking affects our immune system. In 2007 he and his team published a paper on how loneliness in the aged affected their immune systems3. They stated “One of the most robust social risk factors involves the number and quality of an individual’s close personal relationships. People who are socially isolated have increased risk of death from all causes, and several specific infectious, cancerous, and cardiovascular diseases.”
Dr. Sheldon Cohen and his team at the Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania, studied over 300 healthy subjects. Over a two week period they were interviewed regularly to ascertain their predominant thinking patterns – positive or negative. At the end of the two weeks each the subjects were exposed to the rhinovirus (the cause of the common cold). Those who thought negatively had a 300% increased risk of getting a cold4. Three years later they followed this up with another study that replicated these results5.
More recent studies have identified the mechanisms of how thinking affects the immune system. Without getting too technical, a bad attitude raises cortisol (a stress hormone) levels, increases inflammatory markers and decreases antibody levels. The bottom line is that negative thinking reduces your ability to fight off attacks from bacteria and viruses.
The good news is that there are a number of things we can do to ensure that we can change our thinking and thus strengthen our immune systems.
Firstly, we need to become aware of our default thinking patterns. Most people never stop to think about how they think, they simply go through life on autopilot – a bad idea! A simple way to raise our awareness is to write down what we’ve been thinking of, and whether it’s positive or negative, regularly throughout the day. Every 15 minutes, or so, jot down your observations. After a few days a clear picture will emerge. If it’s predominately negative, we need to change. First off, make a decision to capture every negative thought and replace it with a positive one. While this is not easy, especially after a lifetime of negative thinking, it can be done.
Next, make habit of counting your blessings every day, many times a day. We all have so much to be grateful for. Just the fact that we woke up this morning is a cause for celebration – tens of thousands didn’t. Make a list of all the good things in your life, no matter how small, and spend some time giving thanks for them. Spending your first waking minutes doing this is especially powerful. It will set you up for a great day.
Take a good hard look at the people in your life. Are they building you up, inspiring you to improve and succeed, or are they pulling you down? We tend to become like the people we associate with the most, so start avoiding the toxic ones and cultivate relationships with the positive ones.
Stop watching, reading and listening to mainstream media, it’s negative, toxic and won’t help you. The Bible teaches us to guard our minds – good advice. Actively start looking for positive, uplifting and inspiring material to watch, read and listen to. Remember that whatever you put in, comes out.
There are many books, websites and podcasts that will help you change your thinking patterns and become more positive. Changing our thinking patterns to positive will impact every area of our lives, relationships, career, finances, etc., as well as strengthening our immune systems. It will be one of the best investments you’ll ever make and with the current pandemic – a wise one.
Here are a few books you could begin with.