In a rather icky experiment, half the college students being tested had live cold virus sprayed up their noses; the other half, salt water. But surprisingly, not all of the students exposed to the virus got sick. The only ones who got sick also had high levels of stress and negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression or pessimism. As a matter of fact, the emotions were the only things that seemed to make a difference. They mattered more than being with an infectious roommate, age, sex, smoking, alcohol consumption, exercise, diet or quality of sleep. Basically, stress and negative emotions reduce the effectiveness of the immune system and it’s ability to fight off virus, likeH1N1, bacteria and other foreign invaders.
People who experienced chronic anxiety, long periods of sadness and pessimism, unremitting tension or incessant hostility, relentless cynicism or suspiciousness, were found to have double the medical problems with diseases such as asthma, arthritis, headaches, peptic ulcers and heart disease, as people without these factors. This makes distressing emotions as toxic a risk factor as say, smoking or high cholesterol for heart disease.
What this means is that we could be looking at a perfect storm. The elements that are lining up are;
1. The economy stinks.
2. Most of us know someone risking his/her life in the wars.
3. The H1N1 Flu Virus is in the air.
What in the world can we do to help ourselves? According to Daniel Goleman in his book “Emotional Intelligence”, helping people manage their upsetting feelings is a form of disease prevention, so let’s look at that. There is a long list of factors that contribute to stress reduction such as limiting alcohol, getting enough exercise and eating correctly, but let me focus on some of the less well known antidotes that might be helpful.
1.Find the hope in your situation. People who have a great deal of hopefulness are better able to bear up under trying circumstances, including medical difficulties. One way to do this is to challenge negative thoughts. “My husband lost his job, and I hope he gets another one” is as valid a thought as, “My husband lost his job, he’s a loser and will never find another job.” Your immune system will function better if you ruminate on the hopeful thought instead of the negative one.
2. Make friends. Being in healthy relationships has been shown to have a profound positive effect on the immune system. Negative relationships however can take their toll. Marital arguments, for example, have a negative impact on the immune system. It seems to be critical for our important relationships, the ones we are in on a day-to-day basis to be optimistic, fun and friendly.
3. Get it off your chest. Unburdening a troubled heart, either in writing, or in the presence of another person appears to be good medicine. In a 1993 study, Lester Luborsky found medical patients who were given psychotherapy in addition to surgery or other medical treatments fared better medically than those patients who received medical treatment alone.
Lets face it; there is a connection between emotions, the immune system and physical health. It’s scary to think that I could be hurting myself right now with my stress and not even know it. On the other hand, it is hopeful to know that having coffee with my friend, going to Bunco and “Solving Life” with my husband my be helpful in fighting the dreaded H1N1 virus. To quote Goleman,
“Many patients can benefit measurably when their psychological needs are attended to along with their purely medical ones.”
(Knowing that a live flu virus will not be sprayed in my nose also helps).