How Fear Suppresses your Immune System & the Science of Gratitude
It’s flu season and we now have this Coronavirus looming over us. In Hong Kong, many of us have been living in fear and if not fear, then anger and disappointment since protests started last year. The SCMP recently released an article reporting that almost 1 in 3 adults in Hong Kong struggle with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and now 1 month into the Coronavirus I bet these numbers are increasing by the day.
Fear is good and necessary. We need fear to tell our bodies to get up and run from the tiger. Fear is what reminds us to be more careful about our hygiene and wash our hands. Fear is what reminds us to put on our facemasks. But fear like many negative emotions becomes a problem when it is our constant state of being. Overtime if we carry these emotions for a long time, it ends up being a habit because we have trained our bodies to react in a specific way. It’s a code that is written into our cells. Unfortunately much of our society is living in a state of fear, with toilet paper, face masks, antibacterial gels, and rice being bought up in fear.
What is fear doing to us on a physical level?
Fear suppresses our immune system because when we are in this state our bodies produces cortisol and constant high cortisol levels produces inflammation which also dampens our immune system. Fear literally produces toxins in our brain and inhibits our brain from working optimally. Fear dampens our ability to be creative, to concentrate, to problem solve. Fear has been linked to many illnesses includes high blood pressure and asthma.
What is the antidote for fear?
It’s hard to just not fear. We need to replace the fear with a different emotion. And the best antidote to combat fear is gratitude. When a person starts feeling gratitude, their body shifts into a place of receiving and it starts to believe that something is actually happening and the thoughts in your brain will start programming your body to a different future than if you had feeling of fear, worry and anxiety.
There was a research done on a group of people and it found that ten minutes a day of gratitude changed their immunoglobulin levels and boosted their immune system by more than 50% in just four days. Having a gratitude experience also decreases your experiences of aches and pains. How it does this is by increasing serotonin and endorphins our pain reducing hormones that are produced as a result of joy and happiness.
But you can not simply just say you are grateful. It’s not about will power. It’s a matter of the heart and changing your heart to feel gratitude, takes time, practice and discipline. Dr Caroline Leaf tells us that contrary to common belief, the 21 days of doing something over again does not form a habit, what it does instead is that it removes the bad thinking. This is very important. In order to retrain our bodies to react a different way we need to unlearn what you have taught your body. After the 21 days of unlearning, it takes another 42 days of being aware, of self correcting, self regulating to eventually form this habit where being grateful and feeling gratitude becomes an automatic response.
How do we train our minds for gratitude?
Journaling gratitude has been studied to show improvement in sleep cycles but also positive changes in the brain. This has been shown to last up to three months. It can also rewire our brain to become more creative and increase our problem solving skills and overall health.
Worship is another powerful tool to train our mind for gratitude. We all worship in some form or another, whether it be God, our families, ourselves, a cause, our work. Worship is what you put your focus and energy on. And we all know that what we put our energy into is what we will create. But what I’d like to suggest is that worshipping God, a higher power, can bring us to a heightened state of gratitude. A very interesting study that Dr Caroline Leaf mentions in her teachings where they compared the brain activity of meditating master buddhist monks versus nuns who were reading the Bible showed that “...within a few seconds of reading from the Bible, the nuns brain activity fired up at a much higher state of intellectual activity than the expert buddhist monks who had been practising their meditation for 30 years by focusing on a particular object.” (more information: www.drleaf.com)
My own explanation of this is because when we worship God, it’s our way of expressing our gratitude to Him we are communicating this gratitude, whereas the meditation that is often practiced by monks is either about emptying one’s mind or focusing on an object or your breath, not a person. Worship is not confined to music, it can be prayer, reading His word, being silent and waiting on God, but it is a communication more than anything rather than an emptying of mind or a focus on something. It is a communication of our awe of Him.
Awareness is both fundamental and important. In order to unlearn the negative, you need to be aware and pay attention to your reaction to things. This is about being self aware and staying in the moment. We live in a culture with too many distractions, it's too easy to multitask and we hardly live in any moment for more than a few minutes.
Based on the many benefits of gratitude along with the ill effects of fear, gratitude can be a very important survival skill during these difficult times, just as important as good hygiene and boosting our immune system. Our bodies are intertwined. This is why I believe in wholistic healing - healing of the body, mind and spirit because if one is off balance, the whole body is off balance. If you just focus on the mind and ignore the body your body will fight back, and vice versa. Remember, fear is necessary, but it can literally affect your health and well being if you remain in it. Practice being aware of your responses and feelings and start training your body to reacting differently. Gratitude is a very effective way of coming against fear. Fear suppresses our immune system, but gratitude has been shown to boost it by more than 50%. If this is not a reason to give thanks in all circumstances, I don’t know what is.
My challenge to you : Keep a journal of all the little and big things you are grateful for each day. Take an account of how you feel when you write out your list. By day 21 look back to your previous entries and examine how it has changed over time. Keep journaling for an additional two sets of 21 days while keeping track of how you feel as you write them. My bet is that by the end of the 63 days you would be approaching this task differently and the piece of paper you’re writing on can very well translate to your daily thoughts throughout the day.