How The Stories We Tell Ourselves Affect our Immune System

Visual representation of a women and her thoughts.

Are you thinking your way into or out of illness?

Has your cancer diagnosis put you in a state of fear?

Are you talking yourself into dying? If that’s the case, you’re not alone. Millions do it every day without even realizing it.

The good news is that there is help in dealing with the daily internal mental dialogue that you may be experiencing which can make or break your healing progress. And it’s well worth exploring.

I recently interviewed Dr. Brenda Stockdale, a nationally recognized pioneer in the field of Behavioral Medicine. She was the national program director for Bernie Siegel’s ECaP organization and the program she designed was accepted by the chief oncologist and president of the American Cancer Society at Helen and Harry Gray Cancer Center in New England. We discussed her flagship program that is featured in her book, You Can Beat the Odds: Surprising Factors Behind Chronic Illness & Cancer, which has been praised as an essential health book to read.

Applied Psychoneuroimmunology, a fancy term for the way the mind and the body are engineered as a conversation, is not pseudoscience, but a method of understanding and dealing with the body’s responses not only to psychological stressors but to the countless thoughts we generate and experience every day. 1 Research has proven that something as insubstantial as a thought can directly affect our health.2 It follows, logically, that we can impact our health by taking control and directing our thoughts.

You may be familiar with the close relationships between stress (think fight-or-flight), depression, inflammation, and a growing number of identified health disorders including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, and sleep disorders. Make no mistake that your thoughts impact the body’s proliferation of cancer, too.

The visible representation of what happens in our body as we respond to our own thoughts is evident in many ways. Physical manifestations like blushing, salivating, the hair standing up on our arms or the back of our neck, are all-powerful moment-by-moment expressions of internal mechanisms that respond to our thoughts, pictures in our mind, beliefs we hold.3

On a microscopic level, thousands of times a day beyond our conscious awareness, there is a myriad of chemical processes happening on a cellular level that aren’t as readily apparent. For example, a little white blood cell (called a monocyte) has many openings shaped similarly to the internal grooves of a door lock. Each one of the estimated 300+ openings fits one biological response from the emotional center of your brain. The emotional center of your brain sends out key-shaped molecules that fit in lock-and-key fashion to the backbone of your immune system – directly affecting your bodily processes.

Fear Affects Your Body

The fear response to a diagnosis such as Cancer4 is a massive shock to the body’s system. As anyone knows who has been there, it can either shut you down or mobilize you to seek opportunities for health, growth, change. The hormones your body releases during times of stress affect the way your genes respond. The genes we inherited are one thing, but the way they are expressed is not. And herein lies our control. Our diet, the toxins we’re exposed to, our very thoughts, and the way we respond to the stressors we’re dealt, are all contributory factors to our health – for better or for worse. The good news: we have more control over our destiny than we thought!

There are Things We Can Do to Reshape the Narrative

Studies prove that adverse experiences in childhood are often linked to serious illnesses in adulthood. But the flip side is that it is possible to heal the past in the present. It is possible to reprioritize the events in your life and change the course you’re on.

I invite you to listen to my recent interview with Dr. Brenda Stockdale. It’s the next best thing to talking to her in person. It is my pleasure to bring you expert advice first-hand with many of the renowned health and cancer experts on the planet, and she is one of them.

Listen to the entire interview here.

References

1 Qing Yan, “The role of psychoneuroimmunology in personalized and systems medicine,” Methods Mol Biol (2012);934:3-19. DOI: 10.1007/978-1-62703-071-7_1.

2 Andrea Danese, MD, MSc, Terrie E. Moffitt, Ph.D., HonaLee Harrington, BA, Barry J. Milne, Ph.D., Guilherme Polanczyk, MD, Ph.D., Carmine M. Pariante, MD, MRCPsych, Ph.D., Richie Poulton, Ph.D., and Avshalom Caspi, Ph.D., “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Risk Factors for Age-Related Disease,” Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med (2009 Dec); 163(12): 1135–1143. DOI: 10.1001/archpediatrics.2009.214.

3 David S. Goldstein, “Adrenal Responses to Stress,” Cell Mol Neurobiol (2010); 30(8): 1433–1440. DOI: 10.1007/s10571-010-9606-9.

4 Maria Cohut, Ph.D., “How emotions may impact tumor growth,” Medical News Today (July 17, 2018). https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322497.

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