Affective Immunology: scientific exploration of the mind, body, spirit connection in wellness
Updated: Jul 15, 2019
As a therapist I often walk individuals through the process of making sense of their story and, in turn, that process adjusts their life narrative. What we know from the world of trauma is that, more than the event, the person’s response or reaction to that event determines their outcomes. For example, the person who has been held up at gun point has a variety of potential responses. For one they might have the reaction of helplessness or victimization. On the other hand, the same individual might notice that even when held up at gunpoint they had a choice in how they’d respond. They might feel proud of themselves and empowered that they chose to give up their wallet in order to save their life. As you might guess, the individual who gives space for an internal narrative of “I’m a survivor and I made the right choice” will have a very different recovery than the person who has their attention focused on their helplessness. As we might note, we are talking about the exact same situation but the outcomes look very different based on how the event is perceived. Typically our responses are not this black and white but they do point to a notable point that our inner world matters.
The effects of this phenomenon are profound. Dr. Bernie Siegel is a medical doctor who has written a number of books and articles on this topic. He works with cancer patients and reports that the drawing of a cancer patient is highly correlated with treatment outcomes. For example, for those who draw radiation as a death sentence, often the radiation is just that. On the other hand, those who perceive a treatment like radiation to be a gift, a healing element, or something positive, those individuals tend to fare much better with treatments.
Additionally, for centuries we have known that placebo effects often work for some individuals. There are numerous stories of nurses using saline treatments in war to manage pain. We find studies that show trackable, biological changes in the presence of interventions that have no biological mechanism… How? While the research answer on this is still to be determined, studies do point to influences in the social, emotional, and relational aspect as a factor.
A person’s assessment of an event creates both notable biological and psychological changes that inform mental, physical, relational, and even spiritual health. While in years past these ideas might have felt out of the box for much of western medicine and science, the research in this area is pointing to it’s reality.
For example, the field of affective immunology is an interdisciplinary field that explores the connections between the immune system and emotions. We know that inflammation is a leading contributor to almost all forms of chronic illness, both physical and mental. If we can address inflammation, we can prevent disease or reduce the impact. This field of research studies how one’s emotional state influences immune system response, and therefore impacts inflammation. Could this be one piece of the puzzle? We know, for example, that with autoimmune disease in particular, those patients who address the emotional, relational, spiritual, and psychological areas of distress in their lives have improved outcomes. We also know that the introduction of stimuli of any of these stressors can induce an autoimmune response without the presence of negative biological stimuli.
So what does all this mean for each of us? First and foremost, we must know that our narratives can and do change over time if we allow them to. Secondly, we can begin to consider what stories we’re telling ourselves. What is happening in your internal world that might have biological implications?
A. (n.d.). Affective Immunology. Retrieved June 28, 2019, from https://www.affectiveimmunology.com/
Peiris, N., Blasini, M., Wright, T., & Colloca, L. (2018, October 19). The Placebo Phenomenon: A Narrow Focus on Psychological Models. Retrieved June 29, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6195310/
Siegel, D. (2011, July 19). What Drawings Tell Us About Healing. Retrieved June 28, 2019, from http://berniesiegelmd.com/2011/07/what-drawings-tell-us-about-healing/