Our Mental Health Crisis
If you live in the United States, the report card isn’t good. Depression and addiction have been surging because our collective mental health is declining. Now more than ever, we need a robust and healthy body and mind. There’s never been a better time to think about self-care via eating better, sleeping better, and stressing less to strengthen the immune system.
According to research done by the American Psychological Association, chronic stress can severely inhibit immune system function. The longer the stress lasts, the more it will suppress your natural immune system. In a long-term situation like the coronavirus pandemic, that can be a problem.
The good news is that there is a solution, mind-body medicine.
Naturally, diet and exercise are part of the equation, but for this article, we want to focus on mental health. You can take your health into your own (clean) hands by using stress-reduction techniques to enhance your immune system.
1. Connect to Nature
Spring is in the air, and going outside is tempting. If you can go somewhere and enjoy nature by yourself for a while, you should absolutely do so. Spending time alone in a natural setting is shown to reduce cortisol in most people.
This effect gets more pronounced as the setting becomes more “natural.” An ideal location would be a hiking trail away from population centers. If that’s not possible, you can still get some stress-busting benefits just by sitting in your backyard or just near an open window. By reducing your cortisol levels, you’ll be more relaxed, mentally, and physically. That will help keep your immune system in fighting shape.
2. Meditate Daily
Meditation is one of the first things many people recommend for stress reduction, and this isn’t an accident. It’s an ancient practice with miles of modern science that back up its positive effects on the mind. Taking a moment to stop focusing on the noise in your life is a great way to keep things in perspective. However, there’s more to meditation than relaxation.
Meditation provides perhaps the most potent healthy coping mechanism known to man. Good meditation practice is the process of taking control of your thoughts. In a time when everything seems out of control, your thoughts are the one thing only you can affect. By learning to control your thought patterns, you can take charge of your response to stressful situations.
There’s also a physical benefit to meditation. A recent meta-study (a study combining years of other studies) has shown that mindfulness meditation itself can affect the immune system. In particular, it found that mindfulness meditation can reduce inflammation. This style of meditation can also potentially boost the cells of your immune system.
There are a lot of stressful things happening on the world stage right now. Allowing these events to affect you to the point of overwhelming emotional distress can suppress your immune system. However, there are tools and lifestyle changes you can make to take back control. By reducing your stress level, you can build up your immune system. You’ll also be able to cope better with everything the world tries to throw at you, even after things are back to normal.
We offer a new way to meditate that’s insanely easy to learn if you’re interested.
3. Find the Love
There is a bit of nuance on how to cut down on chronic stress. The simplest way to remove most of the unhealthy stress in your life is to avoid people, places, and things that stress you out consistently. When it comes to people, here is a great place to start. First, identify the “energy vampires,” and those are people who tend to be always negative. Or, they always take and never give anything in return. Thus, they suck the energy out of us, and we need to consider carving those people out of our lives. Or, at a minimum, create some distance and healthy boundaries.
Instead, find the love in your life and surround yourself with caring people if you need support. Sometimes it’s family, but sometimes they are toxic and unhealthy themselves, so it’s up to you to find love and support where it exists. It’s out there, I promise, I had to do this very work some years ago. This will also help you stay connected in a time of social distancing. We need healthy social connections in times like this, make that part of your mission starting today.
When it comes to situations, here’s an ideal place to begin. It’s important to remember that I used the qualifying phrase “things that stress you out consistently.” Now there’s chronic stress, and then there’s taking on a challenge. I’m not saying avoid all things that are difficult or challenging because many of those things can be fruitful in the end—for instance, pursuing a bachelor’s degree or tackling an intense workout. Those examples create healthy stress. Focusing on the difference matters and is an art form.
When life is chaotic, it’s natural to reach for “quick and easy solutions” to feel better. Try to cut back on unhealthy coping mechanisms like excessive drinking, stimulants, comfort eating, etc. They provide momentary relief, but the problem will still be there once the fleeting pleasure or numbing effect wears off. And your immune system and health will take a hit each time you abuse your body. I know about this first hand, I’m a recovering alcoholic. In the long run, these maladaptive coping methods will only hurt you.
The news/media can be a significant source of stress if you’re glued to the screen 24/7. Staying informed and up-to-date on the situation at hand is important, but there’s a difference between checking-in…and bathing your mind in negativity all day. Instead, set a limit on your news intake every day. Make a promise to yourself you’ll only spend an hour, give or take, watching the news each day.
Remember, what you feed your mind (mental diet) affects your body as well.
You can also turn off your push notifications if you have alerts coming from news apps to avoid the temptation. Studies have found that people who use their phones too much are more stressed via push notifications. It also affects their performance in daily work tasks. The message here is that if you’re on your phone too often checking news notifications, you’re more distracted and stressed all day.
Unplug and relax; your immune system will thank you.
4. Improve Your Sleep
There is a strong link between inflammation, stress, and a compromised immune system. Multiple studies have shown that inflammation is correlated with both weaker immune systems and mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, and chronic stress. Surprisingly, there’s a simple solution: getting the right amount of sleep can help combat those problems.
It seems intuitive that getting enough sleep will help reduce stress – and it does. Sleep deprivation can cause inflammation, and catching up on sleep helps that inflammation go away. There is a strong correlation between getting enough sleep and forming lasting immunities against viruses, as well. Essentially, getting at least 8 hours of sleep will help you fight viruses. A regular sleep schedule will help you handle COVID-19 better.
5. Exercise More Often
Exercise is supremely good for your health. It helps strengthen your lungs, your cardiovascular system, and your muscles. It can do more than just that, though. Regular exercise can help boost your immune system, too.
Studies have shown that regular exercise helps boost your immune system function. Moderate weekly exercise helps relieve stress hormones like cortisol while improving the production of T and B cells. This is a two-fold improvement because cortisol depresses immune function. You don’t have to be a gym rat either. Taking a fast-paced walk for 30 minutes every day will do the job.
Beyond that, exercise can also boost endorphins. They are nature’s anti-depression meds that get released into the bloodstream, and you instantly start to feel good. And if you’re like me and have a history of depression, daily exercise is a game-changer. This relieves stress on its own, outside the direct effects of exercise. Investing a little bit of time out of your day to get the heart pumping is beneficial on every level.
May you stay strong, calm, and connected.