Your symptoms may not be “all in your head” but they might have started there.
If you’ve spent even a small amount of time reading about the way your emotions can affect your health, you know that feeling powerless, helpless, or hopeless can contribute to depression, respiratory problems, concentration difficulty and headaches, hormone imbalances, and digestive problems. (Look for my upcoming blog about how anger and complaining hurt your heart). But what researchers are now finding leaves that litany of symptoms in the dust. Negativity can severely damage your immune system and cell structure, opening you up to destructive and potentially even fatal disease.
This is not just the immune system that determines if you catch this year’s office cold. Think of your immune system like an army; there are lines of defense and the deeper in, the more severe the attack. You need more than hand washing and vitamin C. The research collectively suggests that our ability to ward off very serious disease is directly impacted by the tone of our thoughts and the messages we listen to seriously, as well as how we interact with others and present information ourselves.
Negative thinking changes you on a cellular level.
The newest research centers on what is known as cell-mediated immunity, a response of the body that activates certain molecules and proteins as a defense against antigens. It might sound a little complicated here, but try to follow it. Antigen is short for “Antibody Generator”. These invaders can come from within the body itself or from an external environment. When your body is healthy, it identifies these antigens and uses the immune system to form an attack in an effort to prevent any damage to your tissues. It does this through a variety of cell types that you may have heard of before with immune related illness, such as T-cells (receptors, suppressors, and helpers). It’s a delicate structure that can get out of whack if we’re not careful. What’s intriguing is that the list of things we do that can weaken our immune system is much broader than we once knew.
For instance, how we say things is as important as what we say.
Researchers found that the way medical information was relayed to a control group of elderly study participants had a direct effect on their cell-mediated immunity. The impact showed in their T-Cell helper and T-Cell suppressor ratio. When information was explained in a pessimistic way, the immune system weakened in these individuals, increasing their risk for immune-mediated disease.
Another study on cell-mediated immunity looked at optimism and law students. Have you ever noticed that in times of stress you are more likely to get sick? There’s plenty of stress in a first year law program! Tracking the students showed a direct correlation to the optimism they felt and the ability of their immune system cells to respond to foreign viruses and bacteria. The more optimistic they felt, the stronger and healthier they were.
Similar studies have been done on HIV, Herpes Simplex, Human Papillomavirus (HPV), heart disease, the successfulness of surgeries and the speed of recovery, and even organ transplant rejection rates.
It’s not just how bad news or important information is transmitted that can have an effect. Researchers also have been taking a good look at the long term consequences of conflict, especially in marriages. All marriages and relationships have some amount of conflict; that’s normal. But when you fight dirty, the harm goes deeper than you think. “Sarcasm, name-calling and back-biting are the problems….we’re seeing the results [of them] thinking about and reliving the argument throughout the day” reported a study done at Ohio State University. Those thoughts generate a hormone rise that doesn’t recalibrate quickly. The more negative the thoughts are, the higher stress hormones rise (epinephrine, cortisol, and prolactin) and the longer it stays that way. “You don’t get sick or healthy in one day. It’s a result of a series of impacts and those impacts accumulate over time.” This imbalance directly weakens the immune system and makes the body vulnerable to damage and disease.
What does this mean for hypochondriacs?
When health anxiety crosses over into an excessive preoccupation about illness, it’s called Hypochondria. The label is usually reserved for those who are easily alarmed over small symptoms, those who are convinced that each small ongoing symptom is actually cancer or some rare disease named for an obscure scientist. But what about the average Joe or Jane who frequently says, “I’m getting sick” when they sneeze or feel tired. “I’m getting the flu” or “I’m going to be too sick to get up in the morning” are declarative statements that are pessimistic in nature. Is anyone really surprised when they do this and actually do wake up the next morning sore and congested, too ill to go into work?
The take-away here is that there is power in the thoughts we think. We may create a self-fulfilled prophesy with our doom and gloom (which should offer some pause into that same power used in reverse by the way), but we also may form a very hazardous habit of negative thinking that harms our cells and wellbeing.
It’s certainly evident that there is a depth of benefits that come from practicing gratitude and developing optimism. These findings provide compelling motivation to challenge ourselves to think about how we say things, how we approach conflict, what we repeat and replay in our mind, and how often we allow ourselves to do that.