Calm But Powerful - Mindfully Supporting Your Immune System
In the middle of this frightening coronavirus pandemic, it’s easy to simply feel powerless and afraid.
Governments and medical authorities have rightly made some key messages clear. It’s a new virus and there is no pharmaceutical ‘cure’ that can be applied because none has yet been developed. Because our bodies are meeting this virus for the first time, as with all the new viruses entering the human population over the past century, we don’t have a natural in-built defence system that immediately starts to disable the virus once we are infected.
And because in a small but significant proportion of the overall population the virus can lead to a more serious and complex illness, the single most important message has to be, avoid it, do everything necessary to protect yourself and others from those tiny viral particles entering your body and multiplying.
All that is true, and so, so important.
But somewhere in all of that, sometimes, those important messages overpower another vitally important message. For most of us, the ‘cure’ lies in our own body. We get better because our body’s own defence systems eventually spot the new viral invader and launch an attack that ultimately overcomes the coronavirus and we get better. The majority of us do this all by ourselves with little more than warmth, rest, sleep and plenty of fluids.
Think of it like this. A clever invader sneaks in. We can’t immediately disable it because we’ve never seen it before. But most of us do have a resourceful army that has the capacity to identify that there is a new enemy, design a new defence and rapidly and effectively deploy it. We don’t really need to know the chemical and electrical pathways by which this happens, we just know it does because the majority of people get better.
Just like any defence force, our ability to defend our own body from invaders can vary. We can have a top-notch defence force, fresh, reactive, rapid and effective, or we can have one that is weakened and worn down, or compromised through circumstance, genetics or lifestyle.
Our greatest power lies in making the very best of what we have. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that being as healthy as possible when faced with a threat makes absolute sense. When we are mentally and physically strong we face all challenges with a greater chance of success and survival. And whatever our starting point right now, everyone can take more control by identifying steps towards a healthier way of being.
We often think of our starting point as food and nutrition. These things are important and you will access an avalanche of suggestions on reputable sites on the internet as to ways you can eat to boost your immune system. We recommend you check out whether you are doing the best you can with food/eating right now, and we’ll post about this another time.
And Functional Medicine Practitioner Dr Mark Hyman recommends that you do the following:
Follow whole food nutrition
Get plenty of restorative sleep
Get moderate amounts of exercise
Limit alcohol (this suppresses your immune system)
Drink plenty of water/fluids
Engage in practices that build calm/hope/satisfaction
In this blog we want to focus on the final point - practices that build calm/hope and satisfaction, and in particular how practising mindfulness/meditation activities is a keystone in keeping your immune system healthy - which is SO important right now as we prepare for possible infection.
How and why does mindfulness/meditation help boost the immune system?
The answer is simple. Mindfulness and meditation practices reduce unhelpful stress in the body, and chronic, on-going stress can seriously and dangerously weaken our immune systems.
Research has shown that quite soon after beginning a meditation/mindfulness practise our body’s cells show physical and chemical changes that benefit the immune system. The chemicals that indicate stress in the body are reduced and chemicals that reflect a calmer body state are increased.
Why is this so important?
Because common states of stress shut down the human immune system and it is the immune system that keeps us safe from a huge range of illness and infectious disease.
I say ‘common’ states of stress, because less common, extreme stress is actually a short term boost to the immune system. If we are attacked physically, for example, our body is triggered into a highly stressed state known as fight or flight. When this happens the immune system gets a boost because we have to prepare for possible healing and repair from any injury or infection we sustain during the ‘fight’. So short term stress is something we have evolved to deal with well. We have a burst of stress, get over it, and calm down.
Regrettably, longer-term or ‘chronic’ stress is now a much bigger problem. Our minds have developed a tendency to view an accumulation of modern-day stresses as a similar threat to our survival and we respond in a similar way to fighting off a physical attack. We launch a flight and fight-like response to problems like debt, relationship breakdowns, work challenges, low self-esteem and even threats to our ego.
For example, for someone in a high-stress job who also has, perhaps, a few issues at home this can be a serious challenge to the immune system. They can survive in a state of chronic stress with little relief, perhaps escaping into alcohol which further suppresses the system and skimping on sleep (another immune suppressant) in order to cope.
To the outside world this person might seem to be coping (some workplaces are full of people like this) and to be reasonably fit. Underneath, though, they are wearing down and reducing their immune system by depriving it of the energy it needs for maintenance and optimum performance.
So why does stress rob the immune system of what it needs?
It’s a simple matter of priorities. When your body feels as if it’s constantly being asked to save your life from something that might kill you in a moment’s time (even if that something is just an on-going stress) then it can downregulate systems that are not immediately essential. This allows resources and energy to be concentrated on pumping energy to fight off the ‘danger’.
The problem is when this state of ‘life-saving readiness’ itself becomes normal. Your body continues to act as if it’s under threat and those vital systems like your immune system (and often other systems too) remain permanently robbed of maintenance and consequently disrupted.
And when you’ve been running down your immune system over time so that it ends up in a ropey state, then the last thing you want is to have to fight off a brand new aggressive infection that requires your body to be at its best.
So what can help you make a speedy transition from a constantly stressed and anxious state to a state of greater calm?
Regular deep relaxation. Mindfulness. Meditating or anything that for you replicates the sense of calm, easy focus, balance and harmony that comes with these activities.
Right now - you can start right now making a space in your life for this important activity. Look upon it as starting to maintain your car better because you know you might be going to drive further than usual at any moment.
In any deeply relaxing and meditative practice, your body is encouraged to breathe deeply and easily. As you breathe more deeply your vagus nerve ( a nerve that controls your fight and flight response) is soothed and your body begins to calm. With greater calm comes a greater sense of physical safety, the body no longer feels as if it has to be ready to defend itself, you experience a sense of greater openness and confidence. As all this happens the body feels safe to get on with repairing, rebuilding and restoring - essentially building up your immune system.
It’s not all about the body either, as you relax and just settle into enjoying your own sense of self and the moment you are experiencing right now (instead of fretting about the past or the future) you start to feel more positive, noticing what’s good rather than constantly being dragged back to negative thoughts and feelings. These more positive feelings, in turn, keep stress at bay. The more you do it the faster and the greater the benefit.
There are lots of ways to start getting the benefits of taking the mind and body to this calmer, more inwardly peaceful and balanced state that benefits our health and that all-important immune system. Here are a few, try a short space of time each day to begin with and see if you can build it up:
Guided body scan, slowly and carefully focusing on relaxing each part of your body in turn. You can start either with your toes or the top of your head and work up or down. Do it in a quiet place either sitting in a comfortable chair or lying down (you can do this in your own mind, or find guided ones on-line). If it helps listen to calming music at the same time
Sit quietly and breathe, calmly and gently. You might like to count to four or five on the in-breath and the same on the out-breath
Lie quietly and listen to calming music through headphones, focusing only on the sounds of the notes, nothing else
Paint, colour or draw just to relax, sitting somewhere quiet and pleasant. Allow yourself to be drawn right into the activity and breathe gently as you create
Dance or move very slowly to relaxing music, in a quiet space where no-one is watching. Close your eyes and feel your body move to the music, make it up, it doesn’t matter what you do
Download a relaxation or meditation app and listen through headphones every day
Write a journal, emptying your head of all thoughts freely, breathing slowly and gently as you do; or write creatively - see what comes when you just let go
Play a musical instrument, if you can, just for pleasure
Go out for an easy stroll on your own, if you can, just noticing what’s around you, breathing in fresh air, refreshing your mind and body
Close your eyes and visualise a beautiful, happy place. You can remember something you’ve experienced before, or make something up. As you imagine, put so much detail into it that you can almost imagine that it’s real, that you could escape into it - think of how it would feel, taste, and smell if you were actually there. Breathe deeply and ‘drink’ it in
If reading through all these suggestions has made you think of something else that gives you a sense of relaxation and escape, then that’s probably the right thing for you to be doing right now to achieve that sense of safety and calm that will nourish your precious immune system.
Here at Pure Turtle we teach, mentor and support anyone wanting to de-stress, calm down or learn to meditate. Right now, during the COVID-19 lockdown, Michael is offering 1-1 meditation guidance free to anyone that would like it. Read more about us here https://www.pureturtle.co.uk/meditation
For therapy for specific issues contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are some links to scientific research papers that we have studied that back up what we try to teach.