Flu season is nearly upon us. Flu—real flu, which is so much more than just a cold—is something everyone hopes to avoid. The flu jab is recommended for some, particularly the over 65’s and those with certain medical conditions.
Furthermore, we’re given lots of ways to look after our physical health. We’re told to take regular aerobic exercise, eat a healthy diet that includes foods high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, get adequate rest, and wash our hands thoroughly and often. However, little advice is given about how to boost the immune system using psychological techniques.
This is a shame, because there’s so much that links our attitudes to the health of our immune system. What, then, is that evidence, and what psychological techniques can you use to strengthen your immune system?
First, try always to maintain an optimistic outlook, particularly when you refer to the difficulties you’re facing.
A simple way to start is to become aware of your choice of words. For example, instead of saying you’re feeling ‘worried’ or ‘threatened’, say that there are some issues you’re ‘going to sort out’. In terms of health, rather than ‘avoiding the flu’, tell yourself you’re ‘building good health’. This may sound trivial, but the phrases we use colour our attitudes, and our attitudes have a powerful effect on our health.
In an analysis of 83 studies that examined the link between optimism and physical health, the authors concluded that optimism was a significant predictor of good physical health outcomes – for cardiovascular disease and various cancers as well as for immune response.
Second, create time on a regular basis to relax your mind and body. For example, in the evening, instead of switching on the TV or checking your Twitter or Facebook feed, sit down in a comfortable chair, dim the lights, and, for ten minutes, simply focus your attention on your breathing. Breathe slowly, in through your nose for the count of four, hold for four, and then breathe out through your mouth for four.
Numerous studies have shown that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, which includes exercises such as the one I’ve just described, has beneficial effects on immune function.
Third, get the best quality sleep you can. Try to go to bed at roughly the same time each evening, and prepare yourself for sleep with a proper bedtime routine. Studies show that if you turn off all screens and dim the lights 20 minutes before you get into bed, this will allow melatonin to rise, and as a result, you’ll relax, get off to sleep more quickly and sleep more restfully.
It’s also important to look out for ways you can help other people. A review in the International Journal of Behavioural Medicine concluded that compassion is strongly correlated with wellbeing, happiness and health.
Finally, make an effort to keep up your social contacts. Your instinct may be to withdraw as the nights get longer, but it’s preferable to meet up face-to-face instead of relying entirely on remote communication.
Numerous studies have shown that spending time with those who matter most to you is associated with resilience, and even with longevity – by quite a significant amount.