“You’re telling me that my emotions can affect my physical health? Are you sure about this?”
Yes, yes I am so sure about this. And that is because there are actually two sects of science designated to this specifically.
- Psychoneuroimmunology: the study of the effect of the mind on health and resistance to disease
2. Affective Immunology: the interdisciplinary area of research dedicated to studying the link between emotions, affects and immunology
Our affects and emotions are an essential part of how we interact with the stimuli around us. Similarly, the immune system is the way in which our body responds to and interacts with our external environment. These two response systems help us to distinguish between what we like and what we do not like, to counteract the challenges we face, and to adjust to the environment in which we live. While we can now see how these two ideas are connected, these scientific areas are in fact a new idea. For much of our scientific experience, it was perceived that the world of immunology and that of psychology were polar opposites, not related at all. (Side note: this is one of my biggest pet peeves as it continues to stigmatize mental health. Why can’t people realize that mental health is controlled by a dysregulation in your brain, and correct me if I am wrong but your brain is an organ, therefore part of your physical health!)
So how does this work? Your brain communicates with the immune system through autonomic nervous system and neuroendocrine activity. Conversely, an activated immune system generates chemical signals that are perceived by the nervous system, creating bidirectional pathways connecting the brain and the immune system that provide the foundation for behavioral influences on immune functions. When you perceive a situation as threatening, the sympathetic nervous system responds by releasing epinephrine and norepinephrine. Your body then responds by increasing your heart rate, increasing blood pressure, and peripheral vasoconstriction. This can also influences the endocrine response system by changing levels of hormones such as cortisol (known as the anxiety hormone.) When these changes are associated with acute stressors, they can be an adaptive part of the “fight or flight” response; releasing defender cells into the bloodstream, release of antibodies into saliva, and increasing the stimulation of nonspecific immunity. However, chronic stressors actually decrease the decreased stimulation of defender cells and the release of antibody-producing functions of immune cells.
While we have begun to study this connection, understanding how chronic dysfunctions of the immune or emotional system influence another system is far from being simple. “Is it that chronic stress causes depression, which then causes inflammation, which is in turn responsible for the increased risk of … disorders or is it that constant inflammation causes depression and ultimately an increased risk of developing … disease? Where is the beginning and where [is] the end of this vicious circle?” (D’Acquisto, 2017). Either way, we know that our mind and emotions interact with our physical immune system. So we must do what we can to eliminate the stress we can, process the stress we cannot disperse, and seek help from professionals when we cannot do it on our own.
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counselor
Affective Immunology. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.affectiveimmunology.com/
D’Acquisto F. (2017). Affective immunology: where emotions and the immune response converge. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 19(1), 9–19. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5442367/