There is no denying it’s a stressful time as things continue to escalate in relation to Covid-19, and haven’t we seen some downright crazy things – from the brothers in New York who cleared out all local stores and amassed 17,000 bottles of hand sanitisers to sell at a profit, to the women in Australia fighting over stockpiling toilet paper rolls. There are differing points of view, and it’s hard to know what information is reliable. The economy has taken a huge hit and livelihoods are at risk.
However, there is an ever-growing body of scientific research we can draw on and implement easily, that have been proven to boost the immune system and help you to feel more calm during adversity.
“We have lots of data pointing to the same conclusion over and over again – that the control we have over our health and well being is far greater than most people realise” – Ellen Langer, PHD, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
This post will share insights that can help you shift from stress and fear into the elevated emotions associated with boosting immunity and emotional well being.
Thoughts and Emotions
Our thoughts and emotions affect every cell in our body, and they even have the power to change our genes. Stress, fear, anger and other survival emotions take a toll on both physical and mental health – they can go as far as suppressing the immune system. Stress is a well known contributing factor to the onset and exacerbation of most serious illnesses and disease. The flip side is that elevated emotions such as kindness, compassion, gratitude and caring can have significant power in positively influencing our physical and mental health.
Let’s take compassion for example and its direct link to improving immune function. A Harvard University study discovered the “Mother Teresa Effect”. Participants watched videos of Mother Teresa carrying out acts of kindness and compassion. Before and after watching the videos they had their salvia tested for levels of secretory immunoglobulin-A (s-IgA), the immune system’s first line of defence and a good indication of overall immune function. Results showed significant elevation after watching the videos, and interestingly remaining elevated for a while afterwards as participants recalled scenes from the videos. In other words their immune function improved.
Other studies echo the result of increasing immunity levels through compassion. Even spending just 5 minutes cultivating feelings of care and compassion in a meditative or relaxed state can increase s-IgA levels by around 50%.
Kindness can slow biological aging by influencing the speed that our telomeres shorten. Telomeres are like protective caps on the end of our chromosomes to protect them from damage. As we age they naturally get shorter as chromosomes replicate and we are exposed to oxidative stress. However, you may be able to slow down the rate of speed that they shorten – a University of North Carolina study measured the length of the telomeres in participants before and after the study. The participants were divided into three groups. One group that practiced a loving kindness meditation daily, a second group practiced mindfulness daily and the third was the control group. The telomeres of the loving kindness meditation group shortened the least during the 12 weeks study, and there was significantly less telomere attrition compared to the mindfulness meditation group and the control group.
There is a growing body of research that demonstrates that the simple practice of gratitude on a regular basis has wide reaching positive effects on our well being. Counting our blessings by keeping a gratitude journal or expressing our gratitude to others leads to fewer health complaints, better quality sleep and higher levels of alertness, optimism, determination and energy – to name a few (for more info about the benefits of gratitude read the blog post Neural Pathways to Happy )
A kind gesture or word can feel good, but can they determine at a cellular level whether we flourish or deteriorate?
It certainly looks like it when it comes to another living organism – plants. As part of an anti-bullying campaign iKea in the United Arab Emirates set up an experiment to demonstrate the negative impact of bullying and the power of positive thoughts and intentions. iKea installed two relatively identical plants in a school and over the course of a month encouraged students to speak kindly to one plant and harshly to the other, the results as you can see in the picture are astounding (or you can check out the video).
So how about human health – can elevated emotions make significant changes to our health and wellbeing? According to epigenetic research, yes they can. Epigenetics, an area of science that looks at how environmental factors (including our emotions and thoughts) and external factors (e.g. pollution and toxins) can turn our genes on (up regulate) and off (down regulate) – in other words, we have influence over our cells and genetic destiny, and thus our health and wellbeing.
In his research-filled book “The Biology of Belief” cell biologist and epigenetic expert Dr Bruce Lipton illustrates that our thoughts affect all the cells in our body. He further highlights the negative impact of chronic fear on our system, and the positive power of love. Explaining we are not a victim of our genes as once believed, it is in fact possible to heal and prevent disease by changing our thoughts and by releasing limiting beliefs.
Researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine investigated if reducing stress with positive emotions could make epigenetic changes that improved health. Using mind-body techniques like meditation and guided relaxation that elicit the physiological relaxation response, they discovered after 8 weeks that participants new to the relaxation techniques had changed 1561 genes, of which 874 had significantly been upregulated for health and 687 significantly down regulated for stress. Participants who were already experienced in mind-body techniques saw changes in 2209 genes, 1275 significantly up regulated for health and 934 significantly down regulated for stress.
Fear and stress around Covid-19 can lead to a nocebo effect. A placebo effect is when someone improves despite not receiving the actual treatment, for example they are given a sugar pill or saline injection. The patients positive expectancy (i.e. thoughts, emotions and beliefs) in the placebo they were given plays a huge role in improving their symptoms and health. The flip side of this can also work – the Nocebo effect is where negative expectations, thoughts and emotions can produce negative outcomes.
A 1962 study of 13 children who were severely allergic to poison-ivy had a fascinating outcome, showing the power of expectation. Researchers rubbed a poison-ivy on one forearm of the children and told them it was a harmless leaf – only 2 of the 13 children developed a rash. On the other forearm researchers rubbed a harmless leaf telling the children it was poison ivy – all of the children developed a rash even though it was a harmless leaf. This is an example of the Nocebo effect– they believed the non toxic leaf was a toxic one and this was enough for their body to create allergy symptoms.
Finding meaning in adversity
Victor Frankl, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, spent 3 years in Nazi Germany war camps including Auschwitz and Dachau. He was curious how some coped well in the face of such harsh conditions and adversity, in a place where the odds of survival were 1 in 28. His conclusions and resulting Logo therapy was that suffering is unavoidable, but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Appreciating the beauty in nature even in the harshest of circumstances, as depicted by a bird sitting on a barbed wire fence on the book’s cover, is an example of this. He summarises 3 ways of finding meaning in life:
- By creating a work or doing a deed (e.g. achievement or accomplishment)
- By experiencing something (e.g. goodness or beauty in something or someone)
- By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering (e.g. when we are not able to change a situation we are challenged to change ourselves).
Some last words on elevated emotions…
Cultivating elevated emotions has been demonstrated as a protective measure against ongoing cardiac incidents. In a 10 year study of patients that had experienced heart issues (acute non-fatal or fatal ischaemic heart disease) the patients who scored highly on positive affect (e.g those who regularly experienced pleasurable emotions such as joy, happiness, enthusiasm and contentment) had better overall health and fewer further cardiac heart disease incidents compared to those with low positive affect scores.
So it’s clear that emotions and expectancy can have significant influence over the cells in our body. The good news is we have the power to cultivate positive emotions and thoughts that support us and shift us out of states of stress or fear into these elevated emotions associated with boosting immunity and wellbeing.
Why not take this challenging time as an opportunity to cultivate some habits that will positively impact your health and wellbeing.
Here are some practical ways to cultivate positive emotions
- Write down 7 things you are grateful for every morning and/or night.
- Turn gratitude into a dinner table activity by asking everyone what are 3 things you are most grateful for today.
- Play a game of A, B, C. This is where the first person states something they are grateful for beginning with the letter A , then the next person chooses something they are grateful for that begins with the letter B, and so on… (e.g I’m grateful for being Awesome! I’m grateful for Bananas – they’re healthy and taste great!)
- Write a note expressing your gratitude or thanks to someone
- Count your blessings
Be compassionate, to yourself and others:
- Leave a pack of toilet paper for the next person! Or better yet drop a pack off to a less able or isolated friend or neighbour (respecting social distancing and current alert levels at the time).
- Make a list of, or google, random acts of kindness and pick some to do
- Watch youtube videos of acts of compassion like Mother Teresa’s
Be caring and kind, to yourself and others
- Use a kind inner voice to yourself, become a better friend to yourself, nourish yourself
- Be kind to others, and on social media have an opinion but be kind in expressing it
Find things that that bring you joy and raise your energy to elevated emotions – picking fresh flowers, a walk on the beach, uplifting music, dance… How beautiful are the videos circulating of streets of Italians uniting (within isolation parameters) and spreading joy by singing or playing instruments on their balconies or out of their windows.
Meditation or guided hypnotic relaxation – if you are new to this there are several apps that offer free meditations and relaxations like Calm or Insight Timer. Or, if you’re interested in purchasing a guided hypnotic relaxation MP3 designed to reduce stress and boost well-being, in recognition during this challenging time I’m offering it for a special reduced price of $5 (email me for a copy).
We have the power within to choose how we respond. It may not prevent suffering – people will get sick, jobs will be lost, etc, but cultivating positive emotions will increase the possibility of you staying well or recovering more quickly. Use this as an opportunity to find meaning in adversity and create new habits that science continues to demonstrate significantly improves our health and well being.
Armstrong, Rebecca. Neural Pathways to Happy http://shinehypnosis.co.nz/neural-pathways-to-happy/
Davidson KW1, Mostofsky E, Whang W. (2010) Don’t worry, be happy: positive affect and reduced 10-year incident coronary heart disease: the Canadian Nova Scotia Health Survey. European Heart Journal, May;31(9):1065-70.
Dusek, Jeffery & Otu, Hasan & Wohlhueter, Ann & Bhasin, Manoj & Zerbini, Luiz & Joseph, Marie & Benson, Herbert & Libermann, Towia. (2008). Genomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response. PloS one. 3.
Frankl, V. E. (2004). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. London: Random House
Horcajo J, Paredes B, Higuero G, Briñol P, Petty RE. (2019) The Effects of Overt Head Movements on Physical Performance After Positive Versus Negative Self-Talk. J Sport Exerc Psychol. 2019 Feb 1;41(1):36-45
Ikemi, L., Nakagawa, S. (1962) A Psychosomatic Study of Contagious Dermatitis. Kyoshu Jornal of Medical Science, vol 13: pp335-350
Le Nguyen, Khoa & Lin, Jue & Algoe, Sara & Brantley, Mary & Kim, Sumi & Brantley, Jeffrey & Salzberg, Sharon & Fredrickson, Barbara. (2019). Loving-Kindness Meditation Slows Biological Aging in Novices: Evidence from a 12-week Randomized Controlled Trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 108: 20-27
Lipton, B H (2005) The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Conscious, Matter & Miracles. Carlsbad, Calif.: Hay House.
Radical Remissions: Healing Against All Odds (March 2020), HayHouse Docuseries, episode 4