Last week we discussed the problems of chronic stress and its negative impact on our immune system.
So this week we’re switching gears with some more practical practices that you can implement today to start boosting your immunity.
Practice Gratitude and Mindfulness
We are genetically disposed pessimists. But before you’re too hard on yourself for not seeing the ‘glass half full, know that we are hardwired this way. Scientists believe we are biologically designed this way as a survival mechanism from our hunter-gatherer days.
But the exciting news is that neuropsychologists are learning that we can rewire our brain for positivity and happiness. The principle of neuroplasticity has proven that we can change the structure and function of our brain, essentially rewiring our brain throughout our lives with conscientious thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that overcome our innate negativity and rewire our brains to be more positive.
We can achieve these positive, neurological changes through mindfulness and gratitude.
Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment without judgment, allowing us to tap into our creativity, innate wisdom, capacity for wonder, our well-being, and ability to connect with what we value to bring joy and contentedness. This increased self awareness can alleviate depression, help in the management of stressors, create more compassion towards one’s self, and has a protective role in the immune system by suppressing inflammatory cytokines.
Gratitude journaling is one impactful method of mindfulness, and it only takes a few minutes a day. Practicing gratitude is a form of mindfulness that helps foster a more positive outlook and reduces the stress response (in Part 1we discussed the negative impact stress has on our immune system).
Insight Timer is a great app for free guided meditations, music, meditations for kids, and for a small annual fee there are courses that support a wide variety of mindfulness topics. Ben and I listen to a course and meditate together every night before bed. Ben meditates first thing when he wakes up, and I meditate first thing in the morning with the boys. After meditating we write in our gratitude journals and later discuss what we’re grateful for at the dinner table. We’ve noticed, even in the boys, that our language reflects more positive rhetoric; I’ve watched as my eldest will take deep breaths when he finds himself frustrated with school work, and when he finds his calm he quickly rebounds and resumes the task at hand.
Eckhart Tolle reminds us in The Power of Now, we cannot change the past, nor predict the future, but when we focus on the present moment, we can catch our breath.
But just like any new endeavor, give yourself grace. Quieting your mind and staying present is a practice, and the more you do it, the better you become. Emily Fletcher wrote a great book called Stress Less, Accomplish More, where she combines the science, tradition, and practicality of a daily meditation practice. She gives you permission to be imperfect, which was what Ben and I needed permission to be when we first began meditating. It isn’t possible to quell every passing thought or fear about the future, but the more quiet you find the more peace will accompany it, and that peace is what turns on the parasympathetic nervous system – the system that allows our bodies to rest and digest, repair and relax – all necessary in supporting a healthy immune system.
Breath is an important facet of mindfulness and meditation. Our breath is part of our autonomic nervous system, (the same system the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems report to) it largely works unconsciously, regulating bodily functions like the heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate…but what is most remarkable is our ability to consciously control our breath. When we slow our breath through controlled, diaphragmatic breaths we can reduce our “fight-or-flight” response, returning our bodies to a parasympathetic state (relaxed state).
Slow breathing soothes, while rapid breathing can induce feelings of stress and anxiety. I find it ironic when you consider during times of stress, our primitive brain interprets a threat and our breath becomes shallow and we have difficulty catching our breath; the very thing that sustains our life, is hard to catch during times of stress.
So the best thing you can do for your immune system and your stress, is breathe. Many of the Insight Timer guided meditations can instruct you on different ways of breathing.
I used breath in powerful ways during childbirth, but more recently we had the opportunity to experience its potency during a WIM Hof workshop, where we sat in an ice-bath and used our breath to maintain calm and ‘warm’. Despite Ben’s fear, he experienced first hand the power of breath, sitting in ice for 2 minutes on a chilly winter day.
Try this simple breathing exercise:
Breathe in and out slowly through one nostril, hold the other one closed using your thumb; then reverse and continue by alternating regularly.
Think Reassuring Thoughts While Breathing
Maybe that’s in the form of a mantra, to keep you focused on positive thoughts like, “I am love.” Or just a single word repeated to yourself. Or simply counting breaths. Or a Loving Kindness prayer,
“May I be happy
May I be healthy
May I feel safe
May I be free from fear”
There is no one right way. So find what soothes and suits you best.
In Part 3 we’ll discuss our social networks and how they support our immunity.
(If you missed Part 1, Living with Covid, read it here)
In Good Health,
Dr. Ben and Allyson
Ben and Allyson are parents, practitioners of wellness and mindfulness, fitness aficionados, and foodies.
And together Ben and Allyson are revolutionizing wellness through Our New Life Revolution, teaching others to take back their life and their health!