Your Brain Has an Immune System, and You Can Boost It
It can help you deal with stress, self-esteem and motivation in the pandemic
You’re probably familiar with your immune system — your physiological immune system, that is. It's the one that sends white blood cells to dispatch with pathogens. But what about your psychological immune system? This is an especially important idea to think about now, in the time of COVID-19 and social distancing.
The term “psychological immune system” was coined by psychologists Daniel Gilbert, who is probably best known for his book Stumbling on Happiness, and Timothy D. Wilson, who is known for his research on self-knowledge. But the basic concept goes back to Sigmund Freud and his ideas regarding defense mechanisms, which were elaborated on by his daughter, Anna Freud, in her book, Ego and Mechanisms of Defense. In fact, “ego defense” is, at least for our purposes, a mechanism to protect the self, or self-image, from whatever threatens it.
A good way to think about the psychological immune system is provided by Emily Rosenzweig, senior behavioral scientist at Ochsner Health, a nonprofit academic health care system in Louisiana: “A range of mental processes triggered by a threat to our sense of self-esteem, self-worth and self-concept.”
What can threaten a person’s self-image, or their self-worth? How about being referred to as a “nonessential” worker?
What can threaten a person’s self-image or self-worth? Here's an example: being referred to as a “nonessential” worker and told to stay home, losing a significant amount of income in the process.
Positive Self Talk
Here’s where you can use your psychological immune system to help. You can tell yourself that you are valuable to society, the current pandemic situation is temporary and the lives of many others are diminished, even if just a little bit, by your absence.
You should also admit to yourself that people can still live meaningful lives without you, and that’s OK, too. It doesn’t diminish your value as a human being.
Positive self-talk can be quite helpful. However, don't overdo it.
For example, you wouldn’t want to tell yourself that without you being there, the lives of others are completely devoid of meaning and those people are just miserable. Knowing that’s probably untrue would likely make you feel worse.
“There’s a sweet spot,” says Rosenzweig. But, she adds, "you can’t deny existing negative emotions.” If you try to completely obliterate those negative emotions, however, you'll probably wind up feeling worse as your brain produces counterarguments that undo your attempts to make yourself feel better.
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Less-Than-Ideal Coping Mechanisms
Being aware of your psychological immune system means you'll be better able to recognize when it kicks in.
Think about the coping mechanisms you use in a stressful situation or when dealing with the difficulties life throws at you. Do you feel better when you pour yourself a glass of wine or three? Do you avoid dealing with things by binge watching Netflix?
Avoidance is one of your psychological immune system’s tactics, even though it may not be good for you in the long run. Like your physiological immune system, your psychological immune system can opt for the short-term fix over long-term wellness.
Not that drinking one glass of wine or watching two episodes of your favorite show are counterproductive. We all need some downtime. Both are easy to overdo, however, and that undermines the effectiveness of your psychological immune system.
Once Again, Exercise Is Key
So, what can you do to bolster optimal functionality of your psychological immune system?
First of all, you need to feel motivated.
Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of the bestselling book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, has a suggestion: Exercise.
“Exercise reduces stress and anxiety, and promotes a better mood — all factors that go into motivation,” Ratey says.
Of course, you also need to feel motivated to exercise and in the tug-of-war between staying fit and Netflix, that motivation can be hard to come by.
Ratey suggests doing something easy, like going for a walk every day, preferably outside, even if it’s just a short walk.
Can’t go outside? There’s an app for that. Ratey suggests downloading the free 7 Minute Workout app on your phone. “It’s all bodyweight exercises, and it activates all major muscle groups.” There are many other workout apps you could try as well.
Developing Goal-directed Behavior
There's also something you can do to maximize the effectiveness of exercise, at least when it comes to your brain and your psychological immune system: Use exercise to help you turn goal-directed behaviors into healthier new habits while making progress towards your goals.
Having a goal is a good way to motivate yourself, but also a way to focus on those behaviors you need to make progress towards that goal.
For example, getting out of debt and becoming financially solvent requires a series of smaller steps to achieve. A good first step in that direction is to create a household budget, which is something you can work on a bit each day while social distancing.
Here's how exercise fits in: Stress can impair your ability to undertake goal-directed behaviors by making you fall back on normal habits. If your habits are binge-watching Netflix, drinking alcohol or eating cereal late at night, stress may reinforce those less-than-ideal behaviors.
But exercise reduces stress and increases motivation. So, it's a behavior you might undertake to achieve the goal of better cardiovascular fitness, losing weight or both. In that way, it’s a goal-directed behavior all by itself. But exercising will also help you stay motivated and focused on your other goal-directed behaviors, by reducing stress and increasing motivation.