The mind is a powerful thing. When we’re determined, we say our minds are set on something. We say we can overcome difficulties “if I put my mind to it”.
But can we really train our minds into making us feel better? Is our ability to heal depended on our “mindset?” Is immunity all – or even partly – in the mind?
Livehealthy delved into the subject with psychotherapist Reem Shaheen and Dr Faryal Luhar, a naturopathic doctor at DNA Health and Wellness in Dubai.
Is there a link between mental health and immunity?
Dr Faryal Luhar: Our emotions and immune functions are interconnected. They mirror each other. It’s not as simple as saying ‘let’s just stay positive.’ As a naturopathic doctor I treat the root cause of any dysfunction and underlying imbalance. With immunity, the underlying factor is some kind of shift mentally or emotionally, which has created physical manifestations.
There is also a powerful brain-gut connection. In fact, 70 percent of immune function is in the gut. Norepinephrine is a chemical produced in the brain and when released as a stress hormone, it produces that gut-clenching feeling. This causes the bad bacteria and pathogens in your gut to proliferate and shift the balance so that the bad guys outnumber the good microbes, which influence our immunity.
Even the anticipation of a stressful event creates the same response as if the event was actually happening.
Not all stress is bad – it can also make you more alert, make you perform better and actually boost immune function. But if the release of stress hormones goes on for too long, the body starts to release inflammatory molecules and that can blunt immune response. We have to tame the flame, bring those inflammatory molecules down, keep cortisol levels low and not create a cascade.
Reem Shaheen: I see a lot of people who are not able to process their emotions properly. They push them under the rug and use every way they can to not feel them. But eventually, those negative emotions become stuck within our bodies. The body stores psychological trauma and eventually it gets into your DNA and creates a blueprint for mental illness.
Lots of people struggle with digestive issues because they feel stress in their stomach. If your stomach clenches whenever you feel nervous, eventually you will have stomach problems. The body does not differentiate between physical and emotional threat – the response is the same.
Which particular problems have you witnessed during the pandemic?
Dr Faryal: Anger, frustration, sadness, despair, loneliness – they have become an epidemic within the pandemic.
It’s been shown that negative emotions exacerbate the immune response. A lot of people are dealing with loss or caring for sick family members and yet so many others are getting prescribed anti-depressants when the events in their life are not really that stressful; they might have a job interview, for example, or they say they’ve simply got too much to do.
People just don’t want to feel, but the irony is that healing happens through feeling and through the experience of coming out the other side.
If trauma is suppressed it can actually be passed on to the next generation. Whatever issue you are dealing with could be something your mother or grandmother passed on to you through their DNA. The environment in which that gene resides is going to influence how that gene expresses itself. So if an individual has inherited some genetic susceptibility to a particular mental health profile or, say, diabetes, if that individual is living in a good, healthy way, they will not develop those problems even though they have those genetic markers.
But if that individual has poor behaviors, that will allow those genes to express themselves in the direction of disease.
Reem: There is over-prescription of anti-psychotic medication all over the world. We are consumed by the idea of numbing our feelings, as if we don’t have the emotional capacity to respond. Most people say they would rather medicate their problems than sit in a room talking about them.
But you can’t live your life avoiding the pain of experience. It’s draining emotionally and will require more and more from you in order for you to be able to function – hence the rise in consumption of anti-depressants.
How can we counteract any negativity that might affect our immunity?
Reem: Learn about yourself. What is going to trigger you into feeling those emotions? When the pandemic began, psychologists went on social media to inform people about what was likely to trigger them and what to do about it.
We can’t prevent bad things from happening, we can only learn how to deal with them better in order to prosper and thrive.
Dr Faryal: One of the best ways is laughter. Watch a comedy film, spend time with friends and people who are positive and just laugh. Real, authentic laughter releases natural killer cells which are really powerful and can destroy viruses and tumors. Research shows that if you watch a funny video or a comedian for an hour you boost your natural killer cell activity for 12 hours.
For every negative emotion, try to think of three positive ones and it will automatically shift your mental and emotional balance and that will of course affect your immunity. But it’s not something you only do once – it’s a practice.
Reem Shaheen and Dr Faryal Luhar were guest panelists at the Livehealthy Festival on January 22, 2021
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.