Emotional Immune System

When we think about the term, "immune system," we typically think about our bodies, how they operate, and different ways to keep it healthy. In short, the immune system is the body's natural defense against disease or invaders. We read articles learning new and improved ways to boost our immune systems. We take supplements, vitamins, minerals, eat lots of veggies, drink lots of water and exercise regularly in order to keep our immune systems in tip-top shape.

Most people agree with the phrase, "You are what you eat!" Here's a brain twister for you. What if, "You are what you think?" I'd love to take credit for this idea but it's a fairly old concept and it focuses on the importance of the thoughts we think and the words we say and how they affect our environment. What if we take this idea a step further? What if we take the idea of feel-good thoughts like, "What you think about, you bring about" and the benefits they have on our health and our lives and move it to someplace bigger - a place that really encourages us to think about our thoughts and their importance to our lives in a whole new way? What if we cared just as much about what comes out of our mouths as we care about what goes into our mouths?

Our Emotional Immune System

Go on a trip with me for just a minute. While it is a newer science, more and more research is being done to prove that positive thoughts have positive benefits to our health while negative thoughts can impact us negatively. Being stressed, worrying about money, judging someone for the haircut they just got, yelling at a driver for cutting us off on the freeway - all those reactions have chemicals associated with them and those chemicals do impact us. Now, if we were in an African jungle and were approached by a predator, all those chemicals would come rushing in to help save our life. They would help to narrow our focus so that we wouldn't be distracted by anything unnecessary which would improve our chances of survival. Being that we do tend to have a negative bias hard-wired into our brains (escaping a predator to live another day is a lot more useful in the jungle than stopping to smell the roses while looking for a mate to pro-create with) we need to work to reverse our old patterns. We don't need to worry about being eaten by lions anymore. It would do us well to shift our thinking to include more positive thoughts.

Here's another way of thinking about it.

Imagine we have a "Thought Calorie Counter"  instead of a "Food Calorie Counter" and our goal is to reach a certain amount of Positive Thought Calories in a day. Every day, we'd start off with zero with a goal to reach 2000 Positive Thought Calories. Each positive thought counts for +10, and each kind word to another person is worth +20. On the flip side, each negative thought counts for -10, and every unkind word towards another person is worth -20. I realize that tracking this for a whole day would be a bit of a challenge but let's just stick with the concept for a minute. We'd catch ourselves when thinking, "Man, where is our stupid waitress," and say, "Oops, just lost 10 points." A nice way to correct it and get the 10 points back would be to say, "You know what, she may be going through something I don't understand. I'll give her a minute and try to get her attention." Not only does this get us our 10 points back but we've interrupted an old way of thinking and replaced it with new and improved way of thinking. If we do this enough, we'll change the neural pathways in our brain and lean more towards caring, compassion and understanding instead of negativity and judgement. Hebbian theory says that "Cells that fire together, wire together," so why not wire our brains for the better?

Let's take this concept and look at a practical application.

Let's take a look at a typical morning for Negative Nancy:

  • "Ugh, that sun is too bright and it's too early! I am NOT a morning person!" (complaining thought) -10 points
  • "Geez, you forgot to clean the stupid coffee pot again. Now I'm going to be late. Thanks a lot!" (nags and yells at spouse) -20 points
  • "Kids, let's go. And, you better have all your homework done because I don't need another call from your teacher telling me that your lagging behind. You've got college to think about and I'm not going to support you forever!" (yells at and discourages her kids) -20 points
  • "I really want a doughnut. Why not, I'm fat anyways...what's one more doughnut." (self-disgracing thought) -10 points
  • "Are you really wearing that to school? You look ridiculous!" (critical comments towards daughter) -20 points.

Negative Nancy has been awake for 30 minutes and she's already scored -80 points, and not only has she degraded herself, she's insulted and belittled her loved ones.

Let's assume, for a minute, that every word and every thought is equivalent to something we ingest into our bodies. Words like "Thank you" and "I appreciate that" would be like eating a grape or a strawberry while other words like, "I'm fat" or "I'm not worth it" would be like eating processed junk food. In Negative Nancy's case in the scenario above, she's eaten quite a bit of junk food for only being awake for 30 minutes. If she started every morning this way, she'd be unhealthy in no time. If her thoughts were actually food, she'd be overdosing on sugar and preservatives which will tear down her immune system making Negative Nancy susceptible to colds, low energy and disease. We know this as it relates to the body so let's think about it as it relates to emotions. If this is a typical start to the day for Negative Nancy, she's really taxing her emotional immune system making it susceptible to things like depression, lack of confidence, irritation and an overall bad attitude. Day after day of nothing but candy bars will make us physically sick. I propose that day after day of nothing but nasty thoughts and nasty words will make us emotionally sick. And, just like smoking hurts the smoker as well as those standing close by, Negative Nancy's insults are also toxic, like emotional secondhand smoke, to both her husband and children. 

Let's assume that Negative Nancy has seen the error of her ways and she's decided to take the first steps to improve her thoughts and comments:

  • "That sun coming in the window sure is bright." (neutral thought) no points 
  • "Looks like he forgot to clean the coffee pot. Oh well, I forgot to fold the laundry yesterday. We were both busy." (neutral thought) no points 
  • "Let's go, kids, I'm running late." (matter-of-fact statement to kids) no points 
  • "I think I'll have a doughnut." (neutral thought) no points 
  • "Is that outfit new?" (neutral question to daughter) no points

As you can see, Negative Nancy has made a huge shift to Neutral Nancy. She hasn't accumulated any points for the day but she also didn't dig herself into a hole. I like to offer this neutral position because for most people it is too big of a jump to go from negative to positive overnight. A transition to "neutral town" feels more natural and obtainable but the benefits are still very valuable compared to Negative Nancy. I remember when I was first trying to clean up my diet in my early 30s, I eliminated one unhealthy thing at at time. My first step was to stop drinking soda. I was surprised how something that seemed so small could make such a big difference. I had a long way to go but agreeing to cut out one unhealthy thing at a time got me to a place of change pretty quickly. Having fewer sick days at work and a clearer complexion were the first things I noticed. Thinking about the emotional immune system, simply cutting out the sarcasm or tempering the digs or jabs is a great first step to making improvements that everyone will benefit from.

Now, after a few weeks of neutrality, we're introduced to Nice Nancy.

  • "I am loving my new window shades that allow me to wake up more gradually. That was a good idea my husband had." (loving and appreciative thought) +10 points 
  • "LOL. From the looks of this kitchen, you can tell a family with a lot of exciting activities lives here. I'm grateful for all we have going on, even if it means the dishes aren't always the first thing to get done." (grateful thought) +10 points 
  • "Good morning, kids. I hope you had a good night's sleep." (kind words to the kids) +20 points 
  • "Man, that doughnut looks good. Whoever invented doughnuts is a genius. Just the same, I think I'll focus on only buying doughnuts for special occasions from now on." (empowering thought) +10 points 
  • "That outfit is so fun. Only my brave daughter could pull off that look so well. You look beautiful." (kind words to her daughter) +20 points

Here it is, 30 minutes into her day and Nice Nancy has already scored 70 points. Nice Nancy's thoughts and comments are equivalent to eating a perfectly balanced and nutritional breakfast and drinking a big glass of refreshing water. Imagine how thrilled her family is and how they'll likely respond in kind. If Nice Nancy keeps this up, she'll help to cultivate a family dynamic that is kind to one another, grateful for what they have and aware of the words and thoughts they entertain while totally understanding their effects. Nice Nancy is on her way to being the loving wife and mother of a family with a high emotional immune system. Just like a body with a strong immune system has a better shot at fighting off the flu, a person or a family with a strong emotional immune system has a better shot at thwarting off negativity and drama while enjoying good energy, a light hearted disposition and a lot of laughs.

So, I present to you a challenge. To the best of your ability, try to get a sense of where you are today with your emotional immune system. What thoughts do you entertain most and how do you speak to those around you? Once you have a sense of this, make some shifts to move from wherever you are today to a better place in 6 weeks. Hey, we can always do better, right? If you need to live in "neutral town" for a while, do it knowing it's a layover. You want your thoughts and comments to feel natural, not fake, so, again, there's nothing wrong with being neutral and slowly introducing more positive positions. As time goes on, start making some bigger shifts towards finding thoughts that are compassionate and saying things that convey understanding. Shifting your perception changes your reality. Start making notes about the improvements you see and congratulate yourself every time you interrupt an old toxic thought with a fresh and understanding one. Replace, "you idiot" when someone cuts you off on the freeway with, "for all l know that guy is having a rotten day" and pat yourself on the back for catching it. Say, "thank you," when someone holds a door open for you and do it with a smile and eye contact. That's an easy +20 points right there.

Be prepared - as you do your emotional cleanse, not dis-similar to physical detox, understand that your tolerance for negativity will decrease considerably over time. If you go for a year without a drink, one glass of wine may knock you on your butt. If you go for several months without swimming in the negativity, negative people and their negative commentary will start to make you cringe. Know that one of the steps to keeping your emotional immune system in tact is to remove (or at least reduce) the negative people and influences in your life. It's OK. When the right time presents itself, you will know what to purge.

Enjoy the journey of boosting your emotional immune system and all the benefits it will provide. Be kind and give yourself a break. You will have moments when you fly off the handle or have a very human moment.  I guarantee you, "jerk" or "moron" will squeak through from time to time.  It's no different than a person with a very healthy diet giving into the temptation of a candy bar.  The point is, if you have a strong enough immune system (physical or emotional) you can afford a little slip up now and then without too much damage done. What you'll also find, though, is feeling good, inside and out, becomes a pretty high priority.

-Dawn Marie. © Copyright, 2015, The Zen Room