how to boost your emotional immunity

How to boost your emotional immunity

The second decade of the 21st century has been the era of the jab. Arguably the most commonly used word during this time has, sadly, been “vaccination”. While to jab or not to jab has caused so much controversy and division, one thing we all desire is to be immune to the insidious COVID virus that caught the world by surprise. But while we acknowledge that we can choose to get shots to ward off diseases, is there a shot that can give us immunity from sadness and stress?

If a mad scientist could come up with a vaccination that gave us emotional immunity, we would be all lining up no matter how long the wait. Alas, there is no such thing … or is there?

None of us is immune to emotional pain, but we can build up our immunity system by assembling an arsenal of fortifying emotions such as self-compassion and temperance to ward off those pesky mean-spirited viruses. Ancient philosophers like Epicurus spoke of how to create the good life; modern philosophers talk about creating meaning and purpose; and today psychotherapists talk of cultivating resilience, restoring connection and creating perspective.

All these theorists have provided us with a wealth of knowledge for us to create our own individual serum to ward off or manage the viral infection of despondency, depression and distress. And we all need this uniquely formulated shot to the system as escalating rates of self-harm and suicide are reaching epidemic proportions. Pills and drug usage as well as alcohol abuse are on the rise, which show that our immunity is weakened and plummeting under the stress of living in this century.

The antidote to stress

So much attention has been given to this pandemic, but the more ominous pandemic that has had the world on the run for much longer than COVID has been the silent killers of stress, loneliness, panic and sadness. These are the real superbugs.

Clinical names for these emotions are depression and anxiety, but the underlying feelings are always loss and bewilderment. We have plenty of prescriptions as well as recreational drugs to fend off the feelings of anguish, but the optimum approach is to have the internal resources to fall back on when life gets overwhelming or when we feel the encroachment of emptiness.

We need the facility to inject ourselves and each other with a variety of emotional safeguards such as connection, resilience, perspective, self-acceptance and compassion. And just as you may opt to take the flu jab every year, we need to boost a good dosage of self-regard by injecting love into the system. While we can never be immune to life’s ills, we can address the ailments inflicted upon us by life.

The human condition is fragile, and while the design is genius, we are vulnerable beings, making us all emotionally immunocompromised at times. We all need specialist care and an individualised program of tender loving self-care to not fall prey to disease.

Bespoke immunity

We are all unique individuals and as such it is not a case of one dose fits all. The emotional syringe must be tailor-made to suit our own condition. We all come into the world with different levels of intrinsic resilience or emotional immunity. Our genetics play a pivotal role in our disposition, so some of us are more prone to anxiety or depression. Studies in epigenetics also show us that we carry the legacy of our ancestors beyond the DNA coding.

Epigenetics is an exciting area of biological studies. Literally meaning “over and above”, this genome sequence sits above the DNA strand. We know there is nothing we can do to modify DNA as this is our unique genetic coding determining eye colour and height as well as the esoteric parts of ourselves such as talents and mental health predisposition. Epigenetics is the process that affects gene expression. Initial research shows that our behaviours, experiences and environmental factors can cause changes in the genome in brain cells that subsequently affect how genes work.

Research is also revealing that even memories, fears and trauma can be passed on through this epigenetic process. Described as epigenetic inheritance, the notion that heritable qualities can only be passed down through DNA code is now being widened, and parents’ experiences which are expressed in the form of epigenetic tags can be passed on to future generations. This includes the legacy of trauma.

Studies conducted in 2015 show that children of Holocaust survivors suffer intergenerational trauma and endure chronic PTSD. The direct descendants inherited epigenetic variations to the gene that was linked to the stress hormone cortisol. And these genetic markers are passed on to their offspring. When we think of intergenerational trauma in Indigenous communities we also see this cycle in play.

However, these epigenetic changes are reversible. When we know our susceptibilities and propensities toward certain behaviours and fears, we can incorporate therapeutic interventions and supportive environments to enhance our internal disposition and sense of wellbeing. Each one of us can be proactive in creating our own dosage of positive and lasting initiatives to feel stronger and safer within our whole being. From compassionate self-talk, confronting our inherited sadness and empowering ourselves through activities such as exercise, yoga, meditation and building friendship networks, we can devise our own wellbeing plan to rehabilitate ourselves to feel fortified.

Resilience antibodies

Resilience training is a relatively new concept in the field of wellbeing and psychology. But the actual word “resilience” was incorporated into the English language in the early 1600s deriving from the Latin verb resilire which means to rebound or to recoil. Resilience is all about “bouncing back” and enduring stress without succumbing to it. As it has become such a ubiquitous and overused buzzword, we forget that its real meaning is not to deflect or resist stress but to manage it.

However, predating the notion of resilience by over 2000 years was an ancient Greek philosophy called Stoicism. The remarkable thing about this philosophy is that it is still practised today and has been adopted by many practitioners in psychology and in the wellbeing space. It is embraced
by many as it is a way of life rather than a didactic practice. Resilience training is the modern-day version of Stoicism. The founder of Stoicism was a Greek named Epictetus and he said, “It’s not events that upset us but rather our opinions about them.” Effectively, it is not what happens to us that really matters but how we judge them which activate how we react or respond.

It is natural to react, which is a “reflex” response, rather than respond, which is a “reflect” response. We all react because we all feel the surge of cortisol when threatened or triggered by a stressful event. Many of us cope in ways that are not helpful: we make decisions out of fear; we withdraw, we emotionally eat or binge, and sometimes we turn to more harmful crutches such as alcohol or drugs.

We build up our resilience antibodies when instead of coping, we manage. We get overwhelmed at times, but using the “Four Virtues of Stoicism” which comprise wisdom, justice, courage and moderation, we move to a place of reflection, and each day we can slowly build up our emotional immunity.

What’s the worst that can happen?

The great Roman general and emperor, Marcus Aurelius, in the second century, also managed to fit in being a Stoic philosopher. In his famous memoir, Meditations, which is still read widely today, he wrote, “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill will and selfishness.”

Now this is a tad dramatic, but he realised that life can and will throw curve balls. We live in a time of unbridled positivity, so when bad things befall us, we flounder. Would any of us have thought at the onset of COVID that the cost of human life and liberty would have been so high? Like the scout’s motto, Marcus Aurelius beseeches us to be prepared and in fact to plan for the worst. Many would say this is pessimistic thinking. Rather, it is precautionary thinking. A Stoic takes an umbrella out on a sunny day just in case, while a pessimist won’t go out at all. But being unrealistically optimistic would be to go out when it’s raining, hoping it will miraculously stop. Over-optimism can lead to disaster.

Scientists often think about the worst-case scenario, not because they are doomsayers but rather because, like Marcus Aurelius, they anticipate the worst but strive for the best outcome. We become more psychologically resilient when we approach life not with fear but with the courage to know that things can go wrong.

In fact, when we foresee and envisage the feelings of the downside even before anything happens then we go through a process which is called “decatastrophising.” We already know what might come so we don’t fear that outcome as much.

Are you in cruise control?

The governing mantra in Alcoholic Anonymous is “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Knowing that there is so much out of our control can be a great source of comfort. We cannot control nature, other people and sometimes outcomes. All we can control is how we respond to what life throws up, and when we act in accordance with our values we may find that we can sometimes effect change. We can only control our response and detach from the outcome. This process assists us to become mentally tough as we know life is not all about us and what we do.

In the Arabic language, inshallah literally means “God willing”. Now whether you are religious or not, this expression poetically says that we mere mortals are not in control and that life, luck and the mystery of God is all unknown to us, operating independently from us. It is not a statement of resignation but rather sanguine acceptance. Some people use fate or the universe to express the same sentiment. Knowing that life sometimes is not in our hands and all we can do is our best can be a source of great comfort.

Have you taken a wide-angled view?

It is not what we view but where we view it from. Putting things in perspective can be helpful in managing anguish or anxiety. Often we will be upset about something only to hear or read about some sad or tragic event. Not only does this give us a new way to appraise our own situation but we also feel grateful for all that we have. This is not to say that bad things only happen to other people, but the “distancing effect” where you view your situation from afar or above allows you to not be so embroiled in your own emotional turmoil. As a result, reframing and refocusing results in feeling less attached to your own pain or distress.

Who’s your hero?

Have you ever read an inspiring biography, watched a heroic character in a movie or admired someone so much that you aspired to be like them? Our heroes tend to embody all the values we hold dear. They show us the best we can be. A child might have a hero like Luke Skywalker or Superman. When teaching a life lesson to a child who may have stolen a chocolate or lied, sometimes asking them what their hero would do in that situation encourages, even emboldens them to reflect on their action. This is not about shaming but rather inspiring them to do what’s right even if they want to indulge their first impulse. Like a child, we adults can also be inspired by our heroes. We make better decisions when we think about what our role model would do. For instance, if you’re panicking about an impending job negotiation or a daunting divorce mediation and the night before the big day you watch the inspiring movie, Erin Brockovich (the story of a single mother on the poverty line who fought the odds and won a major legal case for the underdog), it might just give you that boost of inspiration. No matter the outcome, you are mentally match-ready.

While we can never achieve being impervious to stressors, we can definitely build our emotional immunity so that when it hits we don’t fall into a heap. We have to remember to jab ourselves with serums comprising of love and support. And don’t forget to book in with friends and family for your booster dose. Now you’re fully vaxxed!

5 boosters to build up your emotional immunity

Fortify yourself by creating a strong network of support.
Many people believe in supplements or vitamins to boost their natural immune system. Think of friends, family and other supporters such as therapists, counsellors, yoga teachers, trainers as your own hand-selected range of emotional supplements. These human vitamins enrich the system and, taken on a daily basis, build up optimism and courage to ward off the stresses of life.

Seek meaning and purpose, not happiness.
The problem with happiness is that it is transitory and dependent on events exterior to your life going well. Leading a meaningful existence imbued with purpose is not contingent on external factors. So find what really matters to you and do it.

Be seen.
This seems deceptively simple, even simplistic, but it is harder than you may think. Many people live in the shroud of lack of self-worth or not showing up when they feel low. Putting on a brave face is not resilience. When we speak up and say things aren’t going well, we are seen. The mere act of being seen builds up our emotional immunity as we restore a sense of safety and wellbeing.

Have fun and be silly.
Do what feels good (if it doesn’t hurt yourself or anyone else). Considered the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud created a three-pronged construct of what our personality comprises: the id, ego and superego. The id is that instinctual impulse-based part of ourselves where we act without regard to morality or consequences. It operates on the “pleasure principle”. Of course, this is not what is being advocated here; however, we tend to live highly restrained lives where we must look, act and be a certain way, where we must aspire, achieve and attain all the time, and it is exhausting. So from time to time give yourself permission to let go. Treat yourself to unmitigated fun. Don’t think, just act on impulse by cranking up the music and dancing; diving into the ocean; watch funny movies and laugh out loud. Indulge and enjoy every minute of it.

Live consciously.
Anxiety and depression get the better of us when we don’t live in the present. Fretting is when we worry about an unknown future and ruminating is when we regret a past we cannot change. So be acutely aware of the now. When we live in the very now, we slow down time and we take back some control and agency in our lives.

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland is a therapist in private practice on Sydney’s northern beaches helping people resolve the underlying issues that perpetuate conflict or disconnectedness so they can create meaningful and happy lives. Marie speaks at conferences, forums and community events on a variety of topics from wellbeing and positive psychology to practical philosophy.

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