Psychoneuroimmunology is the study of how your emotional states affect your neural (brain chemicals), endocrine (hormones), and immune (germ fighters) system. This implies that the mind plays a large role in our health and disease. And the main character that acts as the middleman between our immune system and the brain is the Vagus Nerve. This nerve is also the one responsible for our “parasympathetic nervous system”, the relaxed and calm, “rest and digest” system in our body.

The normal feedback-loop between our brain and immune system is connected by this nerve.

  • The body detects an intruder in our system → then through a series of messenger cells and receptors → the brain receives the message that it must send off a troop of army men to fight off infection.
  • An alert is also sent to a gland in our brain and our kidneys to release “alarm” hormones. We may be most familiar with the ones called Cortisol, Adrenaline, and Norepinephrine. The body then increases its immune response, and in most cases wins the battle against the virus. The body is put in hyper drive and our nervous system goes into “fight or flight” mode.

Hence the importance of proper rest and fluids to support the body’s ability to win the “war” and provide it with the energy necessary.

Now let’s reverse that feedback-loop.
Our brain fires up an alarm signal due to our heightened state of stress and dysregulated mood. → This causes a rise in cortisol levels and sends our body’s system into a state of alarm. → A great adaptive feature when the stress is short lived, and in a small amount.

Exercise, for example, creates a small bout of stress in our system. Which is why we are told how exercise helps boost your immune system, and why it is important to let the body rest and recover after exerting ourselves physically. By resting post-exercise, we allow our army of germ fighters to man down again and take their posts.

The problem is when our stress is sustained and we don’t give our body a chance to relax. Without intruders to fight off, our immune system becomes dysregulated and creates an inflammatory response. This is when our ability to fight off infection is diminished, and the reason you are more susceptible to getting sick when you are stressed.

So now let’s welcome: BREATH and GOOD MOOD (aka Positive Thinking)

There have been studies that show us how social interactions* and the human touch ** releases another neurochemical called oxytocin. This is the warm and fuzzy feeling one gets when they’re feeling loved. Oxytocin slows down our brain’s alarm signal to release the stress hormones and adaptive stress response, and acts as a natural painkiller.

When we engage in positive thinking, and solution-driven action towards a problem, we:

  • Increase the upregulation (boost in function) of genes associated with anti-inflammatory responses and antiviral genes are detected.
  • We also improve our cognitive function. Yes, we become smarter when we are more positive!

Focusing on the things that are tangible for us to change and choosing to find the silver linings in each situation helps shift our mindset to one of growth and adaptability.

What to Focus on?

  • Take a step back and take a panoramic view of your environment
  • Find information in the media that is uplifting
  • Read books and become immersed in a new world
  • Learn new things you never had the time to do
  • Engage in activities that you enjoy
  • Notice your inner critic, and shift your self talk to a nurturing and helpful narrative
  • Become aware of your old coping mechanisms that aren’t serving you, and explore which new ones can you replace them with
  • Journal out your thoughts. Challenge them by asking yourself which ones are true, which ones you can redirect, and which new ones you can introduce

These ways to shift your pattern of thinking and perception of reality can help trigger a positive response to boost your immune system.

Finally, take out your best weapon of defense: BREATH

Nasal breathing will always be our best line of defense to maintain our nervous system at bay. But when we are in a hyper aroused state, this may not be an option. So directing your breath to the belly (diaphragmatic breathing) and taking a few slow inhales through the nose, and longer slower exhales through the mouth will activate our relaxation response. We also give a massage to our Vagus Nerve that controls our Nervous System.

By directing our awareness to our breath, and waking up that Vagus Nerve, our nervous system goes into “rest and digest” mode. By taking a few deep breaths as soon as we feel anxious, we break the cycle of getting into worry and panic mode. By breaking the cycle, you shift into destressing mode.

Once you stop the storm, shift your breath to a natural inhale and exhale pattern, You simply observe your breath, and find a smooth and even rhythm. This concurrently slows down your heart rate, and improves your cardiovascular health. Lastly, the BOX breath is a great tool to bring you into a more calm and collected state of being and be able to refocus again. Please note that there are many other breath exercises that may work best for you, but research with Navy seals has proven this one to be practical

BOX Breath:

  • Inhale for a set count of 4,5, or 6, you hold your breath for the same count as the inhale, you then exhale  for the same count, and hold for the same count. Following the shape of a box.

So now that you are more informed, learn to better control your internal states and give your immune system a boost by choosing the things and people that make you feel good, and becoming aware of your breath as medicine. For further support and assistance with any issue you may be dealing with, connect with Astrid Merkt at Balance Health Wellness and become your best self.

* During this time of social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, this can be achieved through video calling. Participating in live video streams and virtual meetings
** Cuddling with your pets, or with immediate family members that are with you during times of quarantine are included. Also the concept of sending someone a virtual hug via your thoughts and you imagining receiving one can also help produce the same effect.

For inquiries on psychotherapy and counselling with Astrid, please contact us at 2530 3315 or appt@balancehealth.com.hk . Online consultations also available for those who would like to book within the comfort of their own homes.

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