Taking Charge of
Your immune system is there to keep your body safe from injury and invasion. It is on duty all the time. It is a complex system operating at all levels from the molecular to the systemic, always with the inborn goal of maintaining your body. In autoimmune disease, something goes wrong, and the immune system begins to attack parts of you. In multiple sclerosis, your nerve sheath, or myelin, is attacked. In psoriasis, your skin is attacked, and in more severe cases, your joints as well. In lupus, your internal organs are attacked. It is frightening to you, and frustrating to your physicians who must prescribe medications with known harmful side effects to help control your symptoms by interfering with your immune system.
Dysfunction in the Nervous System
Why, you wonder, have you opened a psychology web site and found an article on autoimmune disorders? Because there is an intimate link between the immune system and the nervous system. (Solomon) Both have memory, both react to stress, and both operate via peptides as information transmitters. When the nervous system is "out of whack", something that is commonly labeled "mental illness' results--more accurately, disfunction in thought, feeling, and/ or behavior. If the nervous system is overactive, anxiety may result. If it is underactive, the result might be depression. When parts of the mind are not operating properly, people often experience the frightening process called psychosis, where reality is not what it seems to them. A variety of problems in adapting to life result from psychological or physiological problems in the nervous system.
Dysfunction in the Immune System
Similarly, when the immune system is off, you are diagnosed with a physical illness. The immune system may have failed to stop an internal process of deterioration, as in heart disease, or it may have failed to kill a germ, as in pneumonia. Or the immune system can be misguided. Allergies represent the immune system's erroneous attempts to kill invaders that turn out to be harmless: pollen, cat dander, mold spores. If the immune system is overactive, an autoimmune disorder results, the destruction by generally beneficial processes of previously healthy body parts, as we see in lupus. On a large scale, any over-reactive response of the immune system that results in parts of your body being attacked can be classified as an "auto-immune disorder". In this discussion we will include diabetes, lupus, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease, and others. There is also speculation about schizophrenia (Solomon) and chronic fatigue as part of the autoimmune spectrum of problems.
The Bodymind Concept
Thus you find a psychologist writing about autoimmune disorders because it turns out that not only are the nervous system and the immune system similar in style and function, they also both run largely on a system of informational molecules with receptors throughout the body. When you feel butterflies in your stomach, receptors in your gut actually are responding to the same signals as your brain, telling you there is something to fear. There is evidence that genetically transferred insulin dependent diabetes may remain dormant in some, but be triggered by stress in others with the same gene (Lehman, et. al.) due to the effects of stress-related chemicals upon the pancreas. The nervous system and the immune system are intimately interwoven. To think about it another way, there is no real division between your mind/brain and your body--think of your self as a "bodymind" (Pert).
Learning and the Immune System
You might assume your immune system is not able to change with anything you learn in the office of a clinical psychologist any more than it is changing in the care of your physician, but studies have shown that the use of various sorts of imagery and relaxation exercises can indeed improve the function of specific parts of the immune system. Resistance to disease can go up, reaction to allergens can go down, and autoimmune attack can be stopped using relaxation and specific imagery designed to reprogram the immune system. Research demonstrates consistent improvement if not remission in MS, Crohn's irritable bowel, psoriasis, and other autoimmune disorders. An overactive immune system can be quieted via imagery just as an overactive nervous system can. Additionally, the process of psychotherapy can help you learn how your reaction to stress exacerbates your immune disorder. There is additional good news. Clinical hypnosis and mental imagery do not have side effects such as those caused by medications.
Your Immune System can be Calmer
At the Center for Conscious Living, clinical psychologists can help you to learn relaxation, imagery, and self-hypnosis techniques designed to help you to balance your immune system and develop control over many related health problems. Clients at the Center have gone into remission from allergies, irritable bowel, GERD (gastro-esophageal reflux disorder), and Crohn's disease and shown significant improvement in multiple sclerosis. Dr. Low has also worked with arthritis and psoriasis sufferers who have shown improvement. Problems such as these have no real cure, but often improvement and remission can be obtained through a surprisingly simple approach.
Lehman, C.D., Rodin, J., McEwan, B., & Brinton, R. (1991). Impact of Environmental Stress on the Expression of Insulin-dependent Diabetes Mellitus. Behavioral Neuroscience: 105, 241-245.
Pert, C.B. (1990). The Wisdom of the Receptors: Neuropeptides, the Emotions, and Body-Mind. In Editors: R. Ornstein & C. Swencionis: The Healing Brain: A Scientific Reader, pp. 147-158. New York: Guilford.
Solomon, G.F. (1990). Emotions, Stress, and Immunity. In Editors: R. Ornstein & C. Swencionis: The Healing Brain: A Scientific Reader, pp. 174-181. New York: Guilford.