The Intertwining Of Mental Health & Immunity - How To Build Resilience?
What is resilience?
Casey and Lisa, two college graduates, lost their jobs at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Both felt their life is going into a tailspin. They were disappointed, confused, gloomy, and anxious about the future. For Casey, the feelings gradually washed out. After two weeks of misery, she consoled herself, "It's not my fault; it's the economy going through a rough phase. I am skilled and good at my work, and this will change."
Casey started networking with recruiters and employers. While the majority of them rejected her application, she persevered and eventually landed a position. Lisa, on the other hand, spiraled into hopelessness: "I got fired because I wasn't good enough to be retained by the company during a crisis," she thought. "I lack special skills. I am not employable. This global crisis will take years to resolve." Even as the scenario started to get back to normal, Lisa did not strive to find another job; she ended up moving back in with her parents.
Casey and Lisa are examples of two extreme reactions to failure. The 'Caseys' of the world bounce back after a brief period of setbacks and sadness. After a stint with failure, they grow because of the experience. The 'Lisas' dive from sadness to depression due to the paralyzing fear of their future. Failures, illnesses, life-altering accidents, or death- the uncertainties of life can strike anyone anytime. You can choose to succumb to your circumstances, or rather develop a relationship between adversity and positive outcomes.
How can you tell who is a Casey and who is a Lisa? And can Lisas become Casey's? In his book 'Mental Immunity,' Andy Norman talks about how to protect our minds from proliferation and the spread of destructive ideas1. He proposes that key skills like critical thinking, curiosity, intellectual humility, adaptability to change, and imbibing a growth mindset can strengthen mental immunity and enhance resilience.
Resilience in immunity and health
Resilience builds on biological, psychological, social, and spiritual factors. It keeps people motivated to stay active and healthy. The power of resilience helps to resist the negative impact of stress and does not allow anxiety and depression to develop. Such behavior eventually improves the overall quality of life.
Colon cancer patients demonstrating higher levels of resilience were found to cope with the disease better. Studies in terminal cancer patients showed that resilience-enhancing therapy develops a sense of hope in patients.
Numerous studies have shown an association of low resilience with depression, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, heart failure, and ischemic heart disease.
Can your mental health affect your immune system?
Resilience can help protect you from chronic diseases and mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. If you have an existing health condition, being resilient can improve your coping ability. However, the relationship between stress and immunity is bidirectional and immune factors can also impact the degree of resilience and stress outcome.
Resilience can be potentially modulated by nutritional factors as well as your gut bacteria. Both human and animal studies have shown that our body's immune system significantly influences emotional and behavioral factors that can affect resilience.
How to build up resilience?
Resilience is a dynamic and modifiable process that is systematically cultivated and constantly evolved throughout an individual's life. You may effectively practice resilience in one domain while failing to do the same in other domains. Similarly, you may be resilient at one point in time but not during some other phase of your life.
Resilience is not an inherent trait. To build it up, one requires one simple tool-willingness. The following five simple approaches can help you significantly boost your resilience:
1. Reach out
Seeking help from others in cultivating resilience. Acknowledge that you are not able to take control of your circumstances by yourself. Instead, take support from your loved ones and trusted professionals who can guide you to redirect your focus and strength towards positive attributes of life.
- Avoid isolation. Accept help and support from your loved ones.
- Prioritize your relationships and actively interact with empathetic people around you.
- Establish a social network by volunteering or joining a specific community.
- Seek out professional guidance if you are unable to resolve the situation.
- Participating in civic groups, faith-based communities, or other local organizations provides social support and can help you reclaim hope.
2. Stay optimistic
An optimistic outlook empowers you to anticipate good things in life. The mantra to survive difficult situations is - 'never lose hope.
- Focus on situations that you can alter and consciously avoid thinking about situations that you cannot control.
- Accept and acknowledge change as part of life. This approach makes it easier to adapt and view new challenges with less anxiety.
- Your thinking defines your emotions. A more logical and realistic thinking pattern empowers you to approach future strategies.
- Avoid helplessness.
3. Accept yourself
- Take care of yourself. Caring for oneself is not a luxury but a necessity.
- Tend to your needs and feelings. Review your actions and thoughts and ask yourself whether your actions and thoughts are helping you or harming you.
- Participate in activities and hobbies you enjoy.
- Include physical activity in your daily routine.
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- Practice stress management and relaxation techniques, such as yoga, meditation, guided imagery, deep breathing, or prayer.
4. Practice mindfulness
You can train yourself to practice mindfulness. A recent study involving university students highlighted that mindfulness protects against suicidal tendencies during heightened adversity. Doctors and therapists use mindfulness strategies to reinstate the desire to engage with life.
Instead of avoiding the negative aspects, try to tune in to the goodness that life has offered you. Switch your focus of attention to all the positive things of your life and recall the things you are grateful for.
Some of the easy ways to sync mindfulness with your daily routine include mindful journaling, yoga, and spiritual practices like prayer or meditation.
These strategies can help people build connections and restore hope, which can strengthen them to deal with situations that require:
- Good health
- Social and spiritual wellbeing
- Personal healing
- Quality life
People respond to life-changing stressful situations differently. Adapting as well as bouncing back from difficult experiences lead to profound personal growth. While such situations are difficult and distressing, they do not determine the outcome of your life unless you decide to hand over the control to your circumstances. Resilience not only empowers you to acknowledge and own the challenges but also to grow with them along the way.
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- Norman A, Pinker S. Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think. First edition. HarperWave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; 2021.
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- Franjic D. Colon cancer and resilience. Zdravstveni glasnik. 2019;5:66-74Z.
- Solano JPC, da Silva AG, Soares IA, Ashmawi HA, Vieira JE. Resilience and hope during advanced disease: a pilot study with metastatic colorectal cancer patients. BMC Palliat Care. 2016;15:70. doi:10.1186/s12904-016-0139-y
- Loprinzi CE, Prasad K, Schroeder DR, Sood A. Stress Management and Resilience Training (SMART) program to decrease stress and enhance resilience among breast cancer survivors: a pilot randomized clinical trial. Clin Breast Cancer. 2011;11(6):364-368. doi:10.1016/j.clbc.2011.06.008
- Somasundaram RO, Devamani KA. A Comparative Study on Resilience, Perceived Social Support and Hopelessness Among Cancer Patients Treated with Curative and Palliative Care. Indian J Palliat Care. 2016;22(2):135-140. doi:10.4103/0973-1075.179606
- Babić R, Babić M, Rastović P, et al. Resilience in Health and Illness. Psychiatr Danub. 2020;32(Suppl 2):226-232.
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- Dantzer R, O'Connor JC, Freund GG, Johnson RW, Kelley KW. From inflammation to sickness and depression: when the immune system subjugates the brain. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2008;9(1):46-56. doi:10.1038/nrn2297
- Jakovljevic M. Resilience, Psychiatry and Religion from Public and Global Mental Health Perspective - Dialogue and Cooperation in the Search for Humanistic Self, Compassionate Society and Empathic Civilization. Psychiatr Danub. 2017;29(3):238-244. doi:10.24869/psyd.2017.238
- Collins KRL, Stritzke WGK, Page AC, Brown JD, Wylde TJ. Mind full of life: Does mindfulness confer resilience to suicide by increasing zest for life? J Affect Disord. 2018;226:100-107. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2017.09.043