Manage your mindset for immune health
Sophia Power, BA Media
There’s an emerging field of science called psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) that studies the connection between psychology, neurology and immunology that gives us insight into how mindset influences immunity on a cellular level. Changes to attitude, stress levels, mental health and life experience can alter the way the cells of the immune system behave. Clear evidence of this can be found in studies on stress, where immune system markers are much higher in groups experiencing stress compared to control groups.1
At its core, the high impact of a positive mindset is about giving us tools to effectively manage stress, which affects an estimated 2.4 million Australians over the age of 18.2
Stress and the immune system
Before we look at how a positive mindset interacts with the immune system, it helps to understand how stress can impact immunity.
Acute stress is the kind that comes up and then quickly resolves, for instance running for the bus to get to work or moving house. This type of stress is shown to actually temporarily boost the immune system and is a normal process.3
However, with the influence of long-term stress the immune system may become less strong, revealing that the nervous and immune systems have a much closer relationship than previously realised.3
Have you ever noticed how a cold often comes right after a really stressful time or big life event? That’s PNI in action.
Positive attitude and your immune system
Does positivity boost your immune system? We know that mindset is linked to stress – negative thought patterns can lead to higher stress. Importantly, a positive mindset can help reduce cortisol, which is the main stress hormone required in a healthy stress response.
Cortisol can cause changes to the whole body but is usually most obvious in the immune and digestive systems. These are normal responses – for a while. But when stress continues in the long-term, the body is likely to get stuck in fight or flight mode under the influence of cortisol.4
The brain then changes itself to adjust to this long-term stress. The evidence shows that thought patterns and mindset physically re-wire the brain.5 The good news? The brain is ‘plastic’, meaning it’s always capable of change.
Cultivating a positive mindset makes up part of the toolkit we can use to relieve and prevent stress, plus change the brain over time to respond differently to stressful situations. Neuroplasticity is the area of study that looks at how the brain can be rewired for better outcomes – particularly lower stress, positive mindset and kicking unhelpful habits to the curb.6
Practical ways to support a positive mindset
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as saying ‘be positive’. Yes, it starts with a decision to make a change in your life, but the changes need to target deep-seated thought patterns.
Creating and sustaining a positive mindset requires practice and a willingness to let go of unhelpful habits. The aim is to cultivate a positive mindset through habits that help the brain become more open to change. Here are some practical ways to support a positive mindset:
1. Simple lifestyle changes
Simple changes to your lifestyle help to build the foundations of a positive mindset.
If you can, start by moving your body daily. It doesn’t matter what form of exercise you choose, as long as it’s something you find enjoyable and that you see yourself doing on a regular basis. Exercise promotes the growth of new neurons or nerve cells, particularly in the hippocampus – the area of the brain involved with learning and memory.7
If sleep is an issue for you, work on creating a bedtime ritual for restorative sleep. During deep sleep, the brain is able to create and maintain neural pathways that help with daily functions like learning and concentrating. Sleep also helps to remove the build-up of toxins in the brain.8 Check out this post if you’re after more tips on creating a routine for better sleep.
Call on friends, family and community if you’re struggling to maintain a positive outlook. We’ve written a whole post on the benefits of belonging to a community which you can check out here.
2. Practice gratitude
There’s a saying that you may have heard, ‘what you focus on grows’ – focusing on what you do have (as opposed to what you don’t) can make you feel a lot more grateful, and a regular practice helps to shift your mindset.
Our favourite way to practice gratitude at Fusion Health is by using a daily gratitude journal. If you’re not sure how to start a gratitude journal, have a read of this guide on getting started.9
3. Be compassionate
There’s such a thing as toxic positivity – and it can be toxic to your progress in the mindset department. Pretending everything is fine if you’re struggling isn’t going to help. Being honest, patient and compassionate with yourself is foundational in getting to higher ground.
Try not to get hung up on the correct way of doing things and instead be an observer of your own thoughts and feelings. Stay curious when negative thoughts come up rather than jumping to criticise yourself. When those negative thoughts or judgments do come up, let them go and remember that what comes up isn’t who you are, it’s just part of the old mindset.10
4. Tune in and de-clutter
Your internal dialogue, or self-talk, has a major bearing on mindset. Because the brain is basically like a computer running programs all day long, negative self-talk can become like a virus that you didn’t know has infiltrated your computer, preventing other programs from running smoothly. Your anti-virus software is the kinder self-talk that you’re cultivating.
5. Make space for creative play
Creative outlets come in all forms, from cooking to gardening, problem-solving to dancing around your living room. Some of the key benefits of creative play include:
- Creative play relieves stress11
- A creative outlet boosts brain health and function12
- Creativity can improve the brain’s resilience – this has been shown in studies with a variety of creative activities such as writing and using colouring-in books11
You don’t have to quit your job and start a pottery studio to improve your mindset and get a better handle on stress. Sometimes it can feel like reducing stress is an unattainable goal. However, creating almost any good habit is like strengthening a muscle – you wouldn’t go straight for the heaviest weights at the gym without some training. Try including just one new thing from the list above every week or month and notice the difference in your outlook. Side effects may include greater resilience, improved mood, and a stronger immune system.
- Wamser-Nanney RA, et al. The Wiley Encyclopedia of Health Pyschology: Volume 1: Biological Bases of Health Behaviour, 1st Ed. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
- AIWH. Stress and Trauma. Last updated 2020, accessed May 2021 from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/stress-and-trauma
- Fulcher G, Pearce G RACP n.d. Accessed May 2021 from https://www.racp.edu.au/docs/default-source/about/special-interest-groups/afrm-mind-the-mind-is-the-body-the-new-concept-of-psychoneuroimmunology-in-ms.pdf?sfvrsn=c245341a_2
- American Psychological Association. Last updated 2018, accessed May 2021 from https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body
- Khorsroabadi R. Basic Clin Neurosci 2018;9(2):107-120.
- Very Well Mind. Last updated February 2021, accessed April 2021 from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-brain-plasticity-2794886
- Chacin-Fernandez J, et al. Health Psychology Open;2019;6(1).
- Liu PZ, et al. Front NeuroSci 2018;12(52).
- Headspace. Last updated 2019, accessed May 2021 from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/stress-and-trauma
- The Happiness Trap. Last updated 2019, accessed May 2021 from http://thehappinesstrap.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Simple-Steps-to-Self-Compassion-by-Dr.-Russ-Harris-2.pdf
- Stuckey HL, et al. Am J Public Health 2010;100(2):254-263.
- Noice H, et al. Journal of Ageing and Health 2004;16(4).