Keep Calm and Soothe Your Immune System

Christmas is only days away but due to the restrictions it won’t be the merry one we know and love. I’d be grateful for any ideas on how to hold a large family party on Zoom!

We’re coming to the end of the worst year most of us have ever experienced. A world-wide annus horribilis. And it’s taken its toll.

In the summer I spoke to someone who does thermography scans. She has noticed that all the scans this year shown people’s immune systems were over-stimulated. She thinks it’s a result of all the anxiety.

What can we do?

Your nervous system has two parts.

  • One part responds to threats using fight, flight or freeze.

  • The other part deals with rest, repair and digestion.

We need both in balance.

The threat response part is only supposed to work in short bursts -followed by recovery. This hasn’t changed from ancient days when we had to run from danger.

This year our threat response has been in action big-time, for months. We feel that we’ve been under threat this whole year.

Fear of the virus; fear of lockdown consequences like job losses, business closures, home losses, inability to pay bills, uncertainty over the future; stress from being physically cut off from those we love and who support us emotionally; stress from being shut in with those who abuse us; stress from children being out of school and all the exam chaos; stress from losing trust in the government and its actions; grief for the loss of friends, family and the things that enrich our lives like sports clubs, choirs, restaurants and theatres; misery for not having anything to look forward to and no end in sight.

The list is endless and the fall-out is only just beginning to emerge.

It’s no good pretending that everything is fine.

It isn’t.

All is not well.

And it’s right to acknowledge how you feel at each moment in time.

It’s also good to do things, even little things, that help in any way.

Here are some ideas:

When we get stressed, our breathing changes. Fortunately this works both ways so deliberately changing our breathing can make us become calmer. By using the link between your breathing and your nervous system you allow your body to do some resting, digesting, healing.

Here’s a nice breathing exercise (it’s part of a talk on the body-mind connection from the Public Health Collaboration Virtual Conference).  Start at 28minutes 30 seconds to hear the explanation then do it for a few minutes a few times a day, perhaps even more slowly than Joe’s description.  Try it just before you eat so you get maximum nutrition from your food.

Chronic stress increases the hormone cortisol. That makes us hungry so some of us have put on weight. When my Father was dying in the spring, I wanted to eat all the time. I called it my ‘grief gut’. You can get back to proper appetite balance by calming down (as well as ditching junk and eating real food of course).

You will have some personal favourite activities that get you into a relaxed state. You’ll know when you’ve found what’s right for you – time will cease to exist, you’ll feel in the zone, you’ll be so absorbed you won’t notice anything going on around you.

I’m a fan of mindfulness, which is all about noticing how things are, moment by moment, without trying to change them (see this little mindfulness video).

Most people feel good doing yoga or T’ai Chi. It’s necessary to be fully engaged in balance and movement when you stand on one leg – or you fall over!

TV can veg us out but often doesn’t calm us; it’s too passive and lots of programmes feature people being unkind or shouting which will trigger your subconscious defences even more. Try Slow TV, listen to the birds in your garden or mellow out with a nature video – here’s one of a woodland stream (with no birdsong – videos with birds are available!).

The right music works magic too. If you’re up-tight, your brain might reject gentle music, so start with something quite fast, easing it down gradually.

Visually relaxing activities include jigsaws, art and needlework. Stick a bird feeder on your window for delightfully entertaining action to watch.

Getting physical with exercise, gardening, walking the dog or even cleaning the house might work for you. (Take care not to do too much; extreme exercise is like another threat and depresses your immune system.) Gentle stretching helps release muscle tension. Mindful walking in nature gives you physical, mental and visual calming in one.

Waft away and be relaxed by scent – in the bath, as an aromatherapy massage or in a diffuser (always use essential oils, not factory-made perfumes).

Losing yourself in a good book can take you to another place entirely.

Being creative in the kitchen engages all the senses and you get to eat something wonderful at the end!

Top tip: Ramp up whatever calms you.

I wish you a peaceful, if far from normal, Christmas.