If you want to protect your immune system, a growing body of research suggests you should consider your emotions. These studies position mental health as not simply a matter of managing thoughts and feelings, but rather, AN IMPORTANT PART OF YOUR OVERALL HEALTH. As the pandemic continues, it will be important to consider these two aspects of wellness as you ready yourself for the weeks to come.
A working immune system protects the body against infections. Immune cells, which circulate through the body and in tissues, can tell the difference between healthy cells and unhealthy cells. If it encounters a pathogen, like a virus, it mounts an immune response and attacks.
The field of psychoneuroimmunology examines how the brain, endocrine, and immune systems communicate, and how this communication subsequently impacts health. It’s a growing field that’s beginning to shed light on how negative and positive moods affect immune function, disease, and mortality.
It aims to explain, for example, why chronically stressed teens have more inflammation or why HIV positive men, when coached to practice skills that help them experience positive emotions, in turn, have less HIV in their blood.
Fulvio D’Acquisto is a professor of immunology at the University of Roehampton who studies the link between emotions and immunity. He argues for the establishment of a more specific branch of study off of psychoneuroimmunology called affective immunology.
The difference, D'Acquisto tells Inverse, comes down to the difference between emotions and affects and mood. Emotions, D’Acquisto reasons, start and finish within a specific time frame. (You laugh or cry for a few minutes, not for a week.) These experiences, in turn, still affect the body, even if they aren’t chronic.
“When one feels an emotion, the immune system immediately registers the changes and adjusts to it,” D’Acquisto says. “This means that if we are laughing, we have an immediate change in immune cell numbers in blood and in their functions — as is the case if we are angry or crying.”