The Psychological Immune System

Photo by Ryan Magsino on Unsplash

Germs abound. No matter where you go, there are people sneezing and coughing all over you. Despite this, no one gets infected as often as they could. In fact, studies show that even when researchers place a flu virus directly in a person’s nose, at least sixty percent of the time the subject will not get the flu. What prevents people from getting sick more often than they do? You know the answer, it’s the immune system.

Stress abounds. No matter where you go, there are awful people and intolerable demands. Threats loom; just look at the news. Why don’t people crack more often than they do? There’s a psychological immune system just like there’s a physical one. What is this immune system? It involves your feelings. How do you build it up? Learn to listen to your feelings and use them to manage your stress.

When you’re tired, go to sleep. Hungry? Get something to eat; something good that will nourish you. Going too fast? Slow down. Sleep deprivation makes everything worse. Hunger makes you want to bite someone’s head off. When things go too fast, you can’t keep up. All this is stressful. Get the sleep and the food you need and learn to pace yourself and you’ll eliminate most of your stress. Things will still happen. There will still be awful people and intolerable demands, but you’ll be in better shape to deal with them.

How about the other feelings? What is anger trying to tell you? It says you’re powerless. Frustration? You’re trying to do the impossible. Sadness? You can’t rely on what you lost anymore. Fear says warning. Disgust says avoid. Joy tells you there’s something good. Pain is what you get when you go beyond your limits. Feeling stupid is what it feels like to learn. All your feelings are coded messages. Learn the codes.

Did you think these feelings mean something different? For instance, do you believe that anger means someone did you wrong and you must make it right? It could mean that, too. Set things right, if you can; but, when you become a crusading angel for justice, you won’t be lowering your stress, you’d be increasing it. It’s your choice. Either lower your stress or make things right. If you chose to lower your stress, listen to how your anger is trying to tell you, you are powerless and stop trying so hard.

When the body gets invaded by a virus and succumbs to the infection, the immune system learns to recognize that virus. It doesn’t want to make that mistake anymore. When stress gets to you, do you learn from the experience? Do you get better at recognizing the stress and developing more effective ways to combat it? Many people don’t. They keep on doing the same things that don’t work, expecting different results.

Some people have an overactive immune system, an allergy. In that case, their body fails to recognize that a foreign organism poses no risk. It thinks a piece of pollen is a flu virus and fights against it. An over-active psychological immune system regards every fear, pain, and discouragement as something dire. They’re not. Sometimes the feelings get it wrong.

The chronically anxious person takes every fear as a warning that something terrible might happen. His overactive psychological immune system thinks something harmless is a threat. The few times something terrible does happen, the fear is reinforced. The many times nothing terrible happens do not make as much of an impression. The anxious person’s overactive psychological immune system ends up creating more stress by not correcting itself when it gets false positives.

The chronically depressed person is doing the same thing with feelings of hopelessness. She thinks things are hopeless when they are not. When they turn out better than expected, she never gets the memo and goes on believing every discouragement is a dire threat. She has an overactive psychological immune system that, by ignoring false positives, may create the very hopelessness she incorrectly thought she had.

So, in summary, if you want to lower your stress, listen to what your feelings are saying about the things that give you stress; but test those feelings and correct them when they turn out to be wrong.

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