Stress and the Immune System

To modern science, it is clear that there are powerful links between stress and the immune system. There are strong correlations between the centers of the brain that regulate our responses to emotions and to immunological function and the cardiovascular system. These connections work powerfully to promote health and balance by boosting our defenses against disease when we are generating positive mental states such as love, appreciation, compassion, empathy.

Yet under the influence of stress hormones and other neurochemicals that are released when we are feeling negative emotions, these same connections hamper the ability of the immune system to protect us from diseases. Toxic emotions and unbalanced states of mind create conditions in the body that make us vulnerable to developing serious illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Toxic emotions also raise our blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and change our blood chemistry to leave more deposits that clog our arteries.

There are numerous studies that draw a correlation between people’s emotions and their physical health. One study conducted by Howard Friedman, professor at the University of California Riverside, analyzed a hundred different such studies. His analysis showed clearly that certain emotional states are absolutely toxic.

The imbalance created by being chronically stressed, depressed, anxious, pessimistic, irritated, or critical actually doubles one’s chances of developing a major disease! It’s no wonder that in Buddhist traditions these negative mindstates are described as “afflictive emotions” or “mental poisons” believed to be at the root of a host of problematic human conditions.

On the other hand, people who are genuinely optimistic, appreciative, kind, loving, and compassionate are far less susceptible to disease. Their hearts and brains exhibit far more balanced, coherent, and energy-efficient functioning. The biochemistry of loving, positive mindstates promotes measurable balance, revitalization, and immunological strength throughout the systems of the body.

Speaking on the new field of psychoneurocardiology, at a large conference that we chaired for the Menninger Foundation and Life Sciences Institute, Dr. Miroslav Borysenko observed that “the brain is everywhere in the body!” There are special proteins, called neuropeptides, that are produced specifically for each emotion. Until recently it was thought that neuropeptides were manufactured solely in the brain, but scientists now have seen that neuropeptides are also made in our skin, liver and other organs as well. As Dr. Borysenko exclaimed, “ there’s anger in your blood; there’s compassion in your blood.”

As we talk with people about times when they lost their balance in life, few people tell us about losing their physical balance, as in falling when skiing or riding a bike. Rather, they usually talk about getting emotionally upset. That is not surprising. Strong, roller coaster emotions, be they positive or negative, do have a dramatic impact on our sense of balance, and strong emotions tend to drive us into behaviors that often create more imbalance in our own lives and in the lives of others.

Pause to reflect for a few moments on the times in your life when you have felt, and acted, most in or out of balance. How would you describe the predominant emotions during those times: Blind rage? Joy? Grief stricken? Head over heels in love? Wonderstruck?

In short, loving mindstates feed us; while negative mindstates bleed us of our strength and vitality and weaken our immune systems. The key to this, however, lies not in the words that people say or the affirmations they tell to themselves, but in the genuineness and authenticity of their attitudes and feelings.

[Adapted from the book "Living in Balance" by Joel Levey
and Michelle Levey

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