Eight Steps to Processing and Releasing Emotional Toxins
By: William B. Webb, PhD, LICSW, MAC
“The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true.”
– James Branch Cabell, 1929
The relatively new field of science called Psychoneuroirnmunology (PNI) is the study of the interactions between and among the mind (which includes personality, cognition, behavior, and mood), the nervous system, and the immune system. I mention this because PNI is supplying much of the current research which demonstrate the connection between how we respond to everyday stressors and associated changes in the immune system. The immune system is composed of a complex set of interactive physical transactions that provide our greatest internal defense against illness and disease. This mediates system is related to our body’s defense against a myriad of maladies from the common cold to HIV/AIDS.
Being aware of the vital connection between our bodies ability to ward off the effects of stress and disease, and our mental/emotional response to our environment is the first step in understanding how we can bolster our immune response. For example, Suzanne Segerstrom, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Kentucky, has conducted studies which has provided some of the first evidence that our emotions and beliefs influence our immune system. The goal of much of her work is to demonstrate the effectiveness of mind-body approaches for managing beliefs, emotions, and stress to reduce the risk of immune suppression. Her work, and that of David Simon, M.D. (Medical Director of The Copra Center for Well-Being in La Jolla, CA), and that of Steven J. Stein, Ph.D., and Howard E. Book, M.D. (two Canadian researchers and authors on emotional intelligence) form the basis of the following list of suggestions for improving immune function and enhancing psychobiosocial hardiness.
Stress Detoxification and Prevention
- Learn to process and release emotional toxins.
Recent research has demonstrated that significant benefits can be derived from the appropriate processing of traumatic experiences for trauma survivors. Processing our significant life stressors also works well as a preventive for immune suppression in everyday life. So it is important to learn appropriate procedures for processing stressful experiences.
- Formulate “flexible optimism.”
This means to develop and apply the ability to look at the brighter side of life. This is not just “blind positive thinking”, but an attitude toward life which is tied to reality. Optimists demonstrate the capacity for resilience even in the face of adversity because of the way they process (i.e., what they say to themselves about adverse events) stressful experiences.
- Practice good sleep hygiene.
Most adults require from seven to eight hours of continuous sleep per night in order to effectively progress through all five stages of the sleep cycle. Any disruption of this pattern can cause sleep-debt, which can cause decreases in cellular immunity. Incidentally, the latest research indicates that the need for sleep does not decrease with age however, the ability to sleep well does.
- Eat nutritiously.
It is now a well established medical fact that a healthy diet can significantly affect all aspects of human health. Dieting, per say, has not proven to be a very successful method for nutritional regulation. Don’t go on a diet, change the diet you have to include a moderate amount of recommended food choices along with realistic supplementation of multivitamins and minerals.
- Exercise moderately.
This is the same old tried and true recommendation that our parent’s doctors suggested. But it is still good advice. However, it is important to use moderation because exercising which approaches exhaustion can lead to an immunosuppressant reaction in the body. A few of the general health benefits of consistent physical activity are increased muscle strength, more efficient oxygen use, better digestion, and increased immune function. So, Just Do It!
- Actively address stressors.
Behavioral health science has discovered that one of the biggest contributors to stress related illness is the sense of lack of control over what happens in life. Even though we can not always control what happens to us, we can choose how we respond to what happens, and thus the eventual impact upon our health. So practicing regular relaxation, meditation, or prayer can help to provide the body an opportunity to alter its response and thus the effects of stress. Be proactive in confronting the difficulties of daily life. Facing our fears, though more difficult in the short run, is a much more effective way of managing their effects, as opposed to avoiding them.
- Cultivate healthy social relationships.
Interestingly, the research in many fields including social, behavioral, psychological, spiritual, and PNI all attest to the value of forming open, honest, and trusting relationships with our fellows. A healthy social support network can be developed through church attendance, joining a support group, meeting with your bridge club, working in a civic organization, or even an informal mall-walking group. Whatever the form, it is important that we all have human contact.
- Get help when you need it.
Asking for help with managing our life is still very difficult for most of us. Nonetheless, it is also one of the most beneficial steps we can take in terms of resolving or managing modern stress. There is no shame in admitting, “I don’t know how to handle this.” Thank goodness there are places where we can go to learn how.
To summarize, stressors are associated with immune change, but immune responses to stressors are likely determined largely by psychological factors such as optimistic expectations, feelings of control, and well managed emotions. In immunity, psychological factors play an important role in our overall health. We can learn to change behaviors which can significantly improve our immune response to life.
Bill Webb, LICSW, MAC, BCD, a psychotherapist and addictions counselor, is the owner and founder of Oasis Behavioral Health Services in Barboursville, West Virginia. This facility offers individual, family, marital, and group psychotherapy to children, adolescents, and adults.
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