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The importance of the immune system cannot be overstated. It is the first line of defence against illness and disease, and if it isn’t functioning at its best, the body is open to various threats that can compromise the health of every other bodily system.
Although the immune system tends to change throughout one’s life, especially during the natural aging process, it can stay healthy relatively easily if it’s being fed all the right things. Diet, exercise, and proper hygiene are all things that can help keep the immune system running at its best and defend us from harm – but what about mindset? Is there a link between positivity and immune system function?
How does optimism affect the immune system?
It’s well-known that being positive can help lead to healthy changes in the mind, such as improved mood and lessened symptoms of anxiety or depression. But can optimism have a similar effect on the body – more specifically, the immune system? Recent research says yes.
One particular study found that those with more positive attitudes towards life may experience better immunity outcomes. Examining law student participants, the study observed for example, that as they began to think more positively facing certain stressors, their bodies began to react more positively to foreign invasion of pathogens.
Immunity and positive thinking
Immunity is typically viewed as a physiological process, and it can be hard to fathom how just a little more positivity can have any effect at all. After all, the brain can’t think disease away, no matter how much it wants to. Positive thinking in and of itself is no cure – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a helpful tool on the road to recovery, or even during the coping process for those with chronic disease.
For example, findings out of Johns Hopkins Medicine concluded that positive thinking can lead to a decreased risk of heart disease in those who have a predisposition to it because of genetics or family history. One of the reasons for this boost in health because of a positive outlook was attributed to protection against the body’s inflammatory stress response, which is tied in with the immune system and how it functions.
Since inflammation is set off by an immune response, it’s thought that those with positive thinking can mediate inflammation because their immune systems respond more appropriately to both psychological and physical stressors.
Can a negative outlook weaken the immune system?
On the other side of the coin, some research has found that negative thinking may have a direct opposite effect and actually weakens the immune system. One particular study found a link between lowered immunity and negative emotional brain activity in the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain associated with depression).
Participants of the study were asked to think negatively, or replay distressing situations in their minds. Those with more brain activity in the prefrontal cortex during these sessions were found to have lower antibody levels. An influenza vaccination was used in order to have a measurable set of antibodies to seek out during the study. The participants in the study who were asked to think positively or recall happy events had significantly higher levels of antibodies in their system following the vaccine.
Another study published recently found that elderly people with depression had markedly lower immune cells (lymphocytes and T-cells) than their more mentally well counterparts.
How to be more optimistic
It can be hard to stay positive, especially with the current state of the world. It can seem as if everywhere you look there’s another new negative thing to dwell on. But it’s important to search for the silver lining in the clouds, for more than just your mental health.
Being more optimistic can be difficult for a person who is used to negative thoughts; however, there are some simple tips and tricks to help anyone become more optimistic overall.
Taking some time every day to write down three things you’re grateful for can lead to feelings of contentment and optimism towards your life as you continue to practise the exercise.
Seek out awe-inspiring experiences
Recent research has found that experiencing something that takes your breath away, such as hiking to a great view or quietly gazing up at the stars on a clear night, can lead to a boost in mood and positive thinking.
Meditation has been proven to help regulate thoughts and emotions and give people better control over their thought patterns. By meditating, you can learn how to hold onto feelings of optimism longer while letting go of negative thoughts with more ease.
Get lost in the woods
Getting out in nature can be great for the mind and body. Research has shown that spending time outside, specifically in the woods or a forested area, can decrease levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
Do positive things, even in the midst of negative thoughts
If you are experiencing a negative mindset towards life, it can be hard to muster up the gusto to do the things you usually love to do. But it’s important to try your best to do them anyway. Research has shown that putting yourself in a situation you enjoy can bring about positive emotions and encourage more positive thinking overall.
Staying optimistic in the face of nothing but negative situations can be a difficult task, but it’s harming more than just your mindset. If you want to be healthy and able to ward off disease as best you can, it’s important to stay positive – or at least work to train your mind towards having positive thoughts.