The Psychological Immune System

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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.

How Emotions are Made

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Science often tells us that things are not what they seem. Why should feelings be any different?

In the popular view, when a man tells me his dog died, the break in his voice indicates he’s sad. This means, according to the common conception, a circuit in his brain called sadness has been activated. This circuit was wired into him at birth, designed to be stimulated whenever he suffers a loss. The loss of his dog causes his brow to furrow, his shoulders to stoop, tears to form, and his throat to constrict; all signs that tell the world he’s sad.

I hear the break in his voice and the news that his dog had died and feel sad, too. I’ve had dogs, and mine have also died. Following common sense, the same sadness circuit got activated in me in sympathy to his, and there was nothing I could have done about it.

According to the popular belief, this circuit is like many such circuits that take over whenever they are activated: fear, anger, surprise, disgust, among others. When we’re in their throes, we’re unlikely to be able to think straight and do what we think is reasonable. Evolution gave us these circuits to our advantage and they’re now a permanent part of our nature. Consequently, everyone worldwide, except freaks such as psychopaths, have these emotions.

The popular view of feelings can be found everywhere, from Aristotle to Darwin to Freud to Sesame Street. The typical courtroom judge believes that feelings are an inherent vestige of an animal nature, and so will the jury. Teachers put up posters in their classrooms of the universal language of the face to teach their students to recognize emotions as if they’re as standardized as letters of the alphabet. Researchers study the health effects of anger, assuming there’s a single pattern of bodily changes that goes by that name.

And yet, despite this persistent belief that each emotion has a distinct profile and possesses an existence as real as rocks and shrubs, there’s precious little scientific evidence for it. On the contrary, says Lisa Feldman Barrett, in her book, How Emotions are Made, your emotions are not built in, they’re custom crafted. They’re not universal, they vary between cultures. They’re not triggered, you create them. She admits that feelings are real, but not real like rocks and shrubs are real, but real like money is real: a product of consensus. Continue reading

Abjection

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There is a psychological mechanism that isn’t very well known yet is involved behind the scenes in many emotions. It plays a part in disgust, revulsion, repugnance, aversion, distaste, nausea, abhorrence, loathing, detestation, horror, contempt, weird, outrage, terror, fear, fright, panic, dread, trepidation, hatred, hate, abomination, execration, odium, antipathy, dislike, hostility, animosity, ill feeling, bad feeling, malice, animus, enmity, aversion, shame, humiliation, mortification, chagrin, ignominy, embarrassment, indignity, discomfort and repugnance, among others. Really, just about any negative emotion has this mechanism involved.

What is this mysterious power behind the curtain of so many intense, uncomfortable emotions? It’s called abjection. Abjection is what happens when there is a breakdown of the distinction between self and other. It’s necessary for your development into an independent, functioning human being.

To illustrate abjection at its most elemental, do this simple thing. Get a glass of water. Spit in it. Now drink it. If you’re like most people, you’ll be grossed out just by the thought. Continue reading

Frustration

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A lot of feelings will draw your attention elsewhere where your attention doesn’t do you any good. The feeling of frustration is this way. When you’re feeling frustrated, your attention is on the object of your frustration when it should be on yourself.

You’re trying to be on time for an appointment and two elderly drivers are traveling ten miles below the speed limit, side-by-side on the highway. If you’re feeling frustrated, your attention is on those two drivers because they’re in the way. It appears that you will feel better or worse depending on whether they let you by. Your feelings are in their hands. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can take control if you pay attention to what you’re doing instead of paying attention to them.

Let’s be clear about what frustration is. The feeling of frustration is what you get when you expect or try to do the impossible. Continue reading

Shame

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We have no emotion that’s not useful in some way. Everything is there for a purpose, even an emotion that undermines its purpose.

I’m talking about shame. Its purpose seems to be to help us fit in with others. Shame, and its milder version, embarrassment, comes up when you violate a social norm which might get you expelled from the group or, at least lower your status. Continue reading