One Of The Greatest Things
Your Brain Does For You


The human mind is a remarkable thing. It consists of approximately 100 billion neurons and is the most advanced computer on earth.

It is only the size of a fist, yet we know very little about it.

As research in many different fields of study continues to move upstairs to the brain, our knowledge about it continues to advance rapidly.

And there is one particularly wonderful thing our brain does for us.

Much like our physical body has an immune system, so does our brain.

It is known as the Psychological Immune System.

There have been several studies to support this finding but I thought I would pick a particularly interesting one completed by researchers at Harvard University (Gilbert et al., 1998) to look at today.

In this study, Dr. Daniel Gilbert sought to examine how lousy rejection can make us feel.

He decided to explore this question by contrasting how bad study participants felt when they were rejected with how bad they thought they would feel.

Admittedly, that’s a little confusing!

Simply put, in one scenario, the study participants are being rejected. In the other scenario, they imagine how badly they think they would feel if they were rejected.

Hopefully, that makes a little more sense!

A series of experiments were completed involving such events as being rejected at a job interview, being dumped by a romantic partner, being told their personalities were deficient, etc.

And in each of these experiments, a scenario was constructed, so the study participant thought the above event was real (I hope these study participants were rewarded well for their efforts. They were put through the ringer on this one!).

The results of this study were quite fascinating, though.

People continually rated their predicted feelings of rejection to be significantly worse than what they experienced.

Or said another way, there is a Psychological Immune System that helps you to cushion the impact of negative feelings.


Take-Home Message

Whenever fear of rejection or fear of an inability to cope is inhibiting you, strongly consider pushing forward. You have a psychological immune system working for you that will help to cushion the blow.

So even though you might encounter uncomfortable situations in your daily life, you likely won't feel as uncomfortable as you thought you would in that situation.

3 Tips to Improve Your Psychological Immune System

Maintaining your psychological immune system is just as important as maintaining your physical immune system. When you don’t feel well, little else seems to matter.

Let's dive into three quick tips to help maintain your psychological immune system.


Sleep Well Consistently

Struggling to get a good night’s sleep consistently does a lot more than just feel bad the following day.

Have you ever heard of the name Randy Gardner?

He holds the longest scientifically documented period without sleep without the aid of stimulants.

Randy managed to stay awake for 264.4 hours. I’ll save you a little math on this one. That’s 11 days and 24 minutes.

Remarkable!

And what price do you think poor Randy paid for going that long without sleep?

Well, he suffered a whole host of psychological problems with paranoia and hallucinations topping the list.

But, to be fair, this is a truly extreme example. What if you just consistently cut your sleep short?

Nir et al. (2017) conducted a fascinating study where they found that sleep deprivation interferes with communication between brain cells.

These disruptions not only cause people to feel zoned out, but it also leads to lapses in memory and even hallucinations.

So, it's essential to get a goodnight's sleep consistently.

Here are a few quick tips to get you on the right track:

  • Have a consistent sleep and wake time, including weekends (if there’s one point all sleep researchers can agree on, it’s this one)
  • Reread the first bullet point (it’s that important)
  • Keep your room dark
  • Minimize the screen time before bed (aim for a minimum of 30 minutes without screen time before going to sleep)
  • While trying to fall asleep, have something interesting and stress-free to think about (trying to think about nothing will likely lead to worry)
  • If you can't resist napping, set the alarm and don't exceed 45 minutes (ideally, in early afternoon)
  • When attempting to sleep, focus on relaxing (don’t put too much pressure on yourself to fall asleep)

Stay On Top Of Your Stress Level

Stress isn't inherently bad. If you didn't have any stress at all, you probably wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning.

But beyond a little bit of eustress (better known as that little bit of "good stress" that helps us to get going), the goal is generally to reign in climbing levels of stress consistently.

But how damaging can stress be?

Chetty et al. (2014) conducted a series of experiments where they found that long-term stress disrupts the balance between white and gray matter in the brain.

This is particularly important when it comes to mental health.

Imbalances between white and gray matter have been observed in various disorders such as Anxiety, Depression, ADHD, PTSD, Autism and Schizophrenia.

This doesn't mean that prolonged stress will create these issues, but there is a correlation between the two.

Bottom line - long-term stress can be damaging and it is important to prioritize time to consistently manage your stress.

Here are a few stress basics to help get you started:

  • Maintain a consistent daily routine (your body and mind like routine)
  • Continue to exercise (the body wants to move)
  • Periodically check-in with your breathing (slow it down and breathe from your stomach)
  • Drink water consistently throughout the day (we are 60% water, you need to function optimally)
  • Eat small meals throughout the day (it helps to have consistent fuel to keep going)
  • Make problems the correct size (we tend to make issues more significant than they deserve to be)
  • Use relaxing self-talk (calming phrases can help you to avoid catastrophizing which can lead to feelings of anxiety and panic)
  • Challenge negative thoughts (bring out your inner-lawyer and look at the evidence – chances are good that things aren’t as bad as they seem)
  • Prioritize time to focus on what’s going well (there is always something in your life you can feel good about, even if you have to dig a little to find it)

Incorporate Mindfulness Meditation Into Your Day

There has been a lot written about the benefits of meditation, ranging from boosts in attention and creativity to even helping to de-bias the mind (i.e., improve clarity with judgement and decision-making).

But how can mediation help your psychological immune system?

By reducing inflammation.

In the past several years, we have learned in psychological research that inflammation is the enemy (just like it is with the physical body).

When you have a mental health issue, inflammation not only shows up in the brain but also in the body.

One primary example of this is how prevalent inflammation is in the stomach for several different mental health issues.

And nowhere is inflammation more prevalent with a mental health issue than it is with depression.

Enter mindfulness meditation.

Hofmann et al. (2010) completed a meta-analysis of 39 different studies, which shows that mindfulness meditation benefits depression.

There is a plethora of scientific evidence showing that mindfulness meditation is a highly effective treatment for depression.

Here are four fundamental pillars that you need when using mindfulness meditation.

Let’s take a look at them:

Pillar 1 – Get into a comfortable position

It doesn’t matter if you are sitting, standing or walking. But you need to get into a comfortable position that will allow you to relax both the body and mind.


Pillar 2 - Take slow, deep breaths

To get relaxed, it is critical to slow down your breathing. And the best way to do this is to take slow, deep breaths from your stomach.


Pillar 3 - Find something to focus on

It’s crucial to have an anchor to help ground yourself. And it doesn’t necessarily need to be a visual target.

Whatever you choose to focus on can involve any of your senses.

It could be your breathing, looking at treetops while walking in nature or focusing on the dishes you are washing.

But whatever you choose to focus on, you want to lock onto it.

And when you do this, unless you are naturally mindful or well-practiced in mindfulness, chances are your attention will waver.

No problem. Don’t become discouraged and abandon your efforts at being mindful.

Simply recognize that your attention has drifted and return to what you were initially focusing on.


Pillar 4 - Don’t engage with your thoughts

The goal here is to treat thoughts like thought bubbles that show up in a foreign language you can’t understand.

In this type of scenario, you want to sit back and watch as these thoughts just drift by.

It’s impossible to block out thoughts, but when they show up, the goal is not to judge or engage with them.

You have the rest of your day to deal with your thoughts.

If you aren't naturally mindful, I encourage you to start with as little as 5 minutes a day and work up to as much as 20 minutes a day if you have the time.


Do you typically deal with stressful situations better than you thought you would?
What do you do to cope emotionally after a rough day?
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Article by

Trevor Sullivan, MA, RP

Registered Psychotherapist

July 27, 2020