The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of having a strong immune system. As we’ve learned, building up our body’s defenses goes beyond the well known basic needs, including taking care of one of our most important organs, our brain. While we know that if a problem occurs in one organ it can affect our whole body, we may not think that a problem in our minds could negatively affect us physically. However, there is a connection between our mental health and our immune system.
This connection between our minds and bodies is well-established and still being further researched today. Over the past 20 years, studies have shown that stress negatively affects our white blood cells ability to function, directly impacting our body’s ability to fight off infection. Furthermore, vaccinations are less effective and even wounds heal slower for those who are stressed. This connection means that our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes can positively or negatively affect our biological functioning.
Dr. Hannah Reidy, CEO of non-profit group Mind HK, further explains, “Having a better level of mental health will boost your immune system. When we are low in mental health, we have a weaker immune system. Our thoughts are linked to how we feel emotionally and physically. If we have anxious or catastrophic thoughts, we may have sleeping difficulties or a lack of energy. The mind and body are well linked.”
This has been further proven through studies that show depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues increase the levels of morbidity, or chances of developing an illness, as well as mortality, or chances of dying. “We know that people with mental disorders are also more susceptible to various inflammations in the body and to immune system disorders. This indicates that an interaction exists,” says Dr. Klæbo Reitan of St. Olavs Hospital. Dr. Klæbo Reitan is part of a five year research project to analyze the connection between psychoses and the immune system.
Professor Cecilia Chan Lai-wan, Si Yuan Chair Professor in Health and Social Work at the University of Hong Kong, saw this connection first hand. After conducting an insomnia clinical trial, Chan found that one-third started suffering from sleep difficulties after having relationship problems or were in bereavement. Another one-third reported having sleep issues due to work or family stress. “Those with relationship problems found the mind is affecting the body in terms of quality of sleep. With poor sleep the person’s mood becomes worse and the body deteriorates,” explains Chan.
Since then, Chan has developed the Body-Mind-Spirit Intervention. Chan explains, “This approach puts an emphasis on harmony and balance of the five elements in the body – metal, earth, water, air and wood. It also represents different types of internal organs, mood states and virtues, so we can enhance our resilience.” Her integrative approach offers simple to-learn self improvement techniques including straightforward qigong activities and how to recognize acupressure points. There are examples – including video demonstrations accessible online free of charge.
In addition to Professor Chan’s integrative approach, there are numerous ways to improve your mental health if you’re feeling low. First and foremost, taking care of your physical health allows you to establish a foundation for feeling overall better. Ensuring that you’re eating healthy and getting enough nutrition will improve your mood and decrease anxiety and stress. Not having enough of certain nutrients may contribute to some mental illnesses, as there is a link between low levels of vitamin B12 and depression. Keeping a regular sleep schedule and getting enough quality sleep, as your sleep affects your mood. If you aren’t well rested, you may find yourself easily frustrated and angry. Additionally exercising and staying active can reduce feelings of stress and depression while improving your mood. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals known as endorphins, which trigger a positive feeling and even reduce your perception of pain.
Aside from taking care of your physical health, there are many different ways to improve your mental health, including:
- Practicing gratitude. Spending time everyday focusing on the things you’re grateful for in life, whether just by thought or writing them down in a journal. These can be the big things, such as your loved ones, or the little things, such as enjoying a nice meal. It’s especially important to allow yourself to take a moment and fully enjoy the positive experience.
- Mediation. Learning to focus your attention and awareness through a mindfulness practice will allow you to remind fully in the moment, rather than dreading something you did yesterday or worrying about tomorrow. This can be done through a breathing exercise, yoga practice, or fully throwing yourself into an activity or hobby that you enjoy. The main focus is to let distractions go and to gently bring your focus back to the present if you do become distracted.
- Staying positive. It’s important to try to have a positive outlook and look for the silver lining. This doesn’t mean that you’ll never feel sad or angry, but rather that you don’t let those emotions take over or dwell on them. Try to hold on to the positive emotions when you have them and allow yourself to take a break from negative information, whether that’s taking a step back from the news, social media, or even a conversation.
- Connecting with others. It’s vital for our health to have strong, healthy relationships with others, as I discussed in my previous post Enriching Your Life Through Friendship. Besides connecting with family and friends, you could find ways to get involved with your community or neighborhood, through volunteering or joining a group focused on a hobby you enjoy.
- Practicing self love and care. Giving yourself at least one special treat a day is a wonderful practice of self love and care. Ensuring that everyday you have something to look forward to can help getting through difficult parts of the day. Whether it’s a hot bath, a few cookies, or even watching your favorite movie, the most important thing is that you are giving yourself something you truly enjoy, without a concern of whether or not you “deserve” or “earned” it.
There is undeniable evidence that our minds directly affect our bodies. In order to be wholly healthy, we have to ensure that we are taking care of our minds as well as our body. While improving one’s mental health isn’t as straightforward as taking care of our bodies, there are countless ways to help. It’s a matter of finding what works for you and continuing to make it a part of your routine, just like sleep, healthy meals, and exercise. After all, the key to a healthy life is having a healthy mind.