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Identity and Immunity

by Dorothy Rowe(more info)

listed in immune function, originally published in issue 114 - August 2005

If we're in a stressful situation, perhaps doing exams or moving house, we're likely to pick up every cold or flu bug that is going around. Often a bereavement or a bout of depression is followed by a major illness. Why this is so is now emerging from the research on the efficient functioning of the immune system.

Psychology and physiology used to be two very separate disciplines, but from the early 1980s onwards the husband and wife team of Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and Ronald Glaser, followed by other teams of psychologists and physiologists, began to spell out in finer and finer detail the complex connections between unhappiness in all its forms and physical illness. In 2004 Suzanne Segerstrom and Gregory Miller reviewed some 300 research reports which together showed that "psychological challenges are capable of modifying various features of the immune response."[1]

The global term 'stress' has been replaced by stressors, that is, events which challenge our ability to cope. Stressors have been categorised according to how long they last and whether they are continuous or discrete. There are five categories: acute time-limited stressor, such as public speaking, brief naturalistic stressors, such as academic examinations, stressful event sequences, such as a natural disaster, chronic stressors, events which pervade a person's life, forcing him or her to restructure his or her identity or social role, such as happens when a person suffers a severe traumatic injury, or becomes a carer or a refugee and distant stressors are traumatic events which happened in the distant past. However, Segerstrom and Miller had to conclude that "a person's subjective representation of a stressor may be a determinant of its impact on the immune system response." That is, one person may interpret a severe physical injury as a challenge which he will master, while another person suffering the same degree of injury may feel that his broken body means that he is a worthless person.

The function of the immune system is to fight off disease and help the body repair itself after injury. The immune system is very complex, and so there are now a number of different measures of change in its functioning. Different stressors have been found to have different effects. However, "the most chronic stressors were associated with the most global immunosuppression, as they were associated with reliable decreases in almost all functional immune measures examined."

A chronic stressor is a situation which we can interpret as one where we can no longer be the person we know ourselves to be. Of course, we don't have to interpret the situation in this way. The person who sees his physical injury as a challenge is declaring that the event will not change him, while the person who sees his physical injury as rendering him worthless is saying that he has to give up being the person that he is. The first interpretation calls forth courage and optimism, but the second creates an intense and overwhelming fear, the fear of being annihilated as a person, when we feel that we are falling apart, crumbling, disappearing. When we face our physical death we can reassure ourselves that an important part of us, be it our soul or spirit, our children, our work, or just the memories that people will have of us, will continue on after our death, but when we face being annihilated as a person we feel that we are about to vanish like a raindrop into the ocean, never to have ever existed.

This is how we feel when events wrest away from us those people, things and ideas that sustain our existence as a person. Thus the loss of someone we loved, or the loss of our home, or the loss of a belief that was very important to us, such as that if you're good nothing bad can happen to you, can plunge us into this state of intense fear. If we blame ourselves for what has happened we turn our fear into depression. The longer that we remain frightened and/or depressed the longer that our immune system operates inefficiently in repairing injury and warding off disease.

We mightn't be able to change the situation in which we have found ourselves but, if we understand the cause of our terror, we can deal with it. We may feel that we're falling apart, but what is falling apart are those of our ideas which no longer reflect accurately what is going on. These ideas have to fall apart so that we can construct new ideas which better reflect the reality of our new situation. Letting the old ideas go is painful, and we have to endure a period of uncertainty until new ideas emerge, but we can assure ourselves that, while parts of us change, we don't crumble and disappear. Instead we find that things fall into place; we go on existing, changed, but wiser and stronger.[2]

References

1. Segerstrom SC and Miller GE. Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System. Psychological Bulletin. 130 (4). 2004.
2. Rowe D. Beyond Fear. 2nd edition. HarperCollins. 2002.

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About Dorothy Rowe

Dorothy Rowe is a clinical psychologist, well known for her work on depression. She has written 12 books, each concerned with how we create meaning, and is a frequent contributor to newspapers, magazines, television and radio. Her website is www.dorothyrowe.com.au

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