How Positive Emotions Affect Your Immune System
The immune system is the group of organs and special cells in your body that protects you from disease. It is your body’s intelligent and highly efficient way of protecting you against infection by identifying and killing pathogens. When your immune system is functioning properly, it is on a constant mission to seek and destroy these pathogens, distinguishing them from your cells and tissues. When the immune system is somehow compromised, you are at risk of contracting any of a host of infections and diseases.
To maintain optimal health it is essential to have a strong and well-functioning immune system. Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly will go a long way toward that end, but may not be enough for some people. Despite healthy diets and regular exercise, millions of people are still subject to frequent ailments because their immune systems aren’t performing up to their capability.
Believe it or not, one immuneive way to improve the health of your immune system is to cultivate positive emotions like happiness, love, gratitude, and compassion. Researchers over the past 25 years have shown that our emotions may be as important to our immune systems as the food that we eat. One of the leading organizations behind this research is the HeartMath institute. The HeartMath Institute is a non-profit organization that has been studying the human heart and its functions for decades. Through their research they have come up with some incredible discoveries, and are transforming the way we perceive and understand the heart.
The Effect of Emotions on the Heart
The heart at rest was once thought to operate much like a metronome, faithfully beating out a regular, steady rhythm. However, scientists and physicians now know that this is actually far from the case. Rather than being monotonously regular, the rhythm of a healthy heart—even under resting conditions—is actually surprisingly irregular, with the time interval between consecutive heartbeats constantly changing. This naturally occurring beat-to-beat variation in heart rate is called heart rate variability (HRV).
One fascinating thing that the HeartMath institute has discovered is that the emotions we experience directly affect our heart rhythm pattern – and this, in turn, tells us much about how our body is functioning.
In general, emotional stress – including emotions such as anger, frustration, and anxiety—gives rise to heart rhythm patterns that appear irregular and erratic. As seen in the graph below, the heart rate variability (HRV) waveform looks like a series of uneven, jagged peaks. Scientists call this an incoherent heart rhythm pattern. Physiologically, this pattern indicates that the signals produced by the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS)—the sympathetic and parasympathetic—are out of sync with each other. This incoherent heart rhythm pattern can cause our body to operate inefficiently, deplete our energy, and produce extra wear and tear on our whole system. This is especially true if stress and negative emotions are prolonged or experienced frequently.
On the other hand, uplifting emotions send a very different signal throughout our body. When we experience positive emotions such as appreciation, joy, care, and love; our heart rhythm pattern becomes highly ordered, looking like a smooth, harmonious wave (see graph below). This is called a coherent heart rhythm pattern. When we are generating a coherent heart rhythm, the activity in the two branches of the ANS is synchronized and the body’s systems operate with increased efficiency and harmony. Not only do positive emotions feel good to us psychologically – they actually physically benefit us by helping our body’s systems synchronize and work better.
These graphs show examples of real-time heart rhythms recorded from individuals experiencing different emotions, and as you can see, our emotional states actually have a very significant physiological effect on the rhythms of the heart. The incoherent heart rhythm pattern shown at the top—characterized by its irregular, jagged waveform—is typical of stress and negative emotions such as anger, frustration, and anxiety. The coherent heart rhythm shown on the bottom of the graph—characterized by its regular, sine-wave-like waveform—is typically observed when an individual is experiencing a sustained positive emotion, such as appreciation, compassion, or love.
The HeartMath Institute focuses largely on what they call coherence—referred to as a state of optimal function characterized by increased order and harmony in both our psychological (mental and emotional) and physiological (bodily) processes. Much of their research is centered around how to get into a state of coherence through intentionally generating positive emotional states, and how this effects the health of the body.
Their research shows that when we activate this state, our physiological systems function more efficiently, we experience greater emotional stability, and we also have increased mental clarity and improved cognitive function. Simply stated, our body and brain work better, we feel better, and we perform better.
Not only do positive emotions, such as gratitude or compassion, have physiological effects in the way that they affect the heart, and thus the overall performance and health of the body, but positive emotions can also help us to decrease the amount of stress that we experience, which also has significant implications for our health.
The Effect of Positive Emotions and Optimism on the Immune System
People that regularly experience life with gratitude tend to be more optimistic, a characteristic that researchers say also boosts the immune system. "There are some very interesting studies linking optimism to better immune function," says Lisa Aspinwall, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Utah. In one study, researchers comparing the immune systems of healthy, first-year law students under stress found that, by midterm, students characterized as optimistic (based on survey responses) maintained higher numbers of blood cells that protect the immune system, compared with their more pessimistic classmates.
Optimism also has a positive health impact on people with compromised health. In separate studies, patients confronting AIDS, as well as those preparing to undergo surgery, had better health outcomes when they maintained attitudes of optimism.
The Effect of Stress on the Immune System
Whenever you encounter a perceived threat, your hypothalamus, a tiny region at your brain's base, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain's use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
Cortisol also restricts functions that would be unnecessary or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It modifies immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.
The body's stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to standard levels, and other systems resume their routine activities. But when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on.
The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follow can disrupt almost all your body's processes. This puts you at an increased risk of many health problems from anxiety and depression, to digestive problems, headaches, weight gain and even heart disease.
Manage Your Stress and Emotions to Achieve Better Health
As you can see, managing stress is essential for optimal health of the body and the proper functioning of our immune system. Thankfully, the HeartMath Institute has created a technique called the “Quick Coherence Technique” that is able to create a coherent state in about a minute with simple, but powerful. Using the power of your heart to balance thoughts and emotions, you can achieve energy, mental clarity and feel better fast anywhere. This technique can be used at any time in the day, especially when you begin feeling a draining emotion such as frustration, irritation, anxiety or anger.
Step 1: Focus your attention in the area of the heart. Imagine your breath is flowing in and out of your heart or chest area, breathing a little slower and deeper than usual. It is suggested that you Inhale 5 seconds, exhale 5 seconds (or whatever rhythm is comfortable).
That’s it! As simple as it seems, taking a moment to pause, turn your attention inwards, focus on your heart and your breath, and generating sincere positive emotions brings your heart rhythm into a state of coherence, helping your body to relax and begin functioning optimally. When generating a positive emotion, just think of something you are grateful for, perhaps breathing, water, food, friends or family. Alternatively, think about someone you love, and how much you appreciate them. Let yourself breathe with and experience these positive emotions. Your mind will be at ease, your body will function better, and your heart will thank you.