Am I people-pleasing myself into an early grave?

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‘Healthy anger is a boundary defence. It says, “This is my space, get out, leave me alone. I’m not going to take on your stuff.”’ Another boundary defence? The immune system. ‘These systems are not separate; they’re just different manifestations of the same apparatus, so if you suppress your anger for long enough, you suppress your immune response.’

It’s almost embarrassing how revelatory I find these insights. I know an indelible impact is made on the systems of those who’ve experienced trauma. But it didn’t register that smaller stuff could leave a scaled-down impression, too. To understand the nuts and bolts of this, I put in a call to Fulvio D’Acquisto, professor of immunology at the University of Roehampton, practising psychotherapist, and one of the world’s foremost experts on the interplay between the immune and emotional systems – a field known as affective immunology.

‘Only two tissues can remember: the brain and immune system,’ he shares. ‘The brain measures what you experience consciously, everything else – invisible threats – is monitored by the immune system.’ Being healthy, he explains, isn’t about an absence of disease. The bacteria that cause disease are always there, but the reason you remain in good health is due to the inactive physiology – take the acidic pH of skin – that blocks a pathogen from infecting your system. This is called a ‘passive immune response’, he says.

Now, ready for some deep irony? ‘The moment you become passive in your daily life, or conscious life, the body matches that and the passive immunity reduces,’ he says – before laughing when I ask him to explain the mechanism via which this occurs. ‘Anyone who claims to know the answer to that is delusional – we don’t even understand exactly how aspirin works.’ What matters, he says, is that from the bacteria’s perspective, you’re easier to infect. He offers an example – one he’s seen many times in a therapeutic setting – of someone who, despite red flags and concerned warnings from loved ones, pursues a toxic relationship.

‘Years down the line, they may have an autoimmune disease – the immune cells adjusting their functioning according to what the mind is experiencing and attacking its own cells instead. It’s the body’s way of saying: please stop what you’re doing. I can’t convince you with words; let me convince you with facts,’ Professor D’Acquisto says.

Period24 Sept 2023

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