Think for a moment about any deeply held beliefs you have about your health. What stories do you have on repeat regarding your physical health? Your mental health? Do you believe your body is your ally, or your enemy? Can you handle the stressors in your life without becoming overwhelmed or ill?
Stress is actually an important and healthy part of life. It allows us to be prepared for moments where the stakes are high. Constantly worrying about the amount of stress that persists throughout life is actually a problem unto itself, and often, the narrative in the yoga world is that everyone is over-stressed and lacking self-care, and therefore immune-deficient.
Whether this is true for you or not, it is a story that makes it easy to feel physically and psychologically frail. This feeling can be accentuated during the holiday season, when not only can our “busy-ness” increase, but there is a resounding chorus of stress throughout the media and amidst social groups, backed by the harmonies of sniffles and sneezes that seem to abound as the days get shorter. It becomes all too easy to get sucked into the belief that you, too, must be very stressed out and susceptible to illness.
Perhaps you have bouts of seasonal affective disorder around this time of year. Perhaps you eat more sugar than normal. Maybe you have anxiety about scarcity of time or money around holiday festivities. All of these things affect your immune system, undoubtedly. But mentally or physically punishing yourself for indulging in too many cookies, or allowing yourself to drown in an apparent sea of holiday tasks because they all seem terribly important, can be just as harmful to immune function.
So what do you do if you can’t completely avoid stress in your life (you can’t, and shouldn’t) AND you can’t constantly worry about that stress either? The beauty of the human body is that it is highly adaptive, and highly resilient. We are made to deal with physical and psychological stressors, and the immune system plays a huge role in this. In fact, our immune system is regulated by many other systems — especially the endocrine system and nervous systems, which are strongly influenced by other systems as well, including the digestive system, lymphatic system, and cardio-respiratory system. It can be extremely difficult to single out a cause for poor immune function, but in medicine this is often the aim. If you took a drug or supplement (or two) for each component of immunity that could be dysfunctional, you would have quite a list. Please don’t get me wrong — medications are life-saving, useful, and can be very appropriate. But I think that focusing in on finding a “culprit” for immune dysfunction and then trying to “fix” that one issue, has shown itself to be a poor model for health.
The belief that one is broken and needs to be fixed is incredibly damaging. And I’ll say it again — the human body is highly adaptive, and highly resilient. The body functions by attempting to maintain allostasis, or a sense of balance and healthy response to stressors amongst all body systems. Stress, poor diet, mental illness, and an unhealthy lifestyle in general can certainly disrupt the balance and create disease, but most of the time, your body has the capacity to heal and restore balance within it already.
Each of us, then, must work to create the conditions under which our bodies can function optimally. This means working not to eliminate stress, emotional challenges, and holiday dessert from our experience, but instead to cultivate healthy relationships with these inevitable parts of life. Stress is okay, and even necessary, but our body and mind can only function well when they are strong, healthy, and allowed time to recover from challenges. Fitting recovery time into life does not need to become an additional problem, though. It could be as easy as pausing for 10 minutes of yoga or meditation, a really great belly laugh, a few minutes of relaxed breathing and a nap, or any one of several tools we have available to regulate immune function in healthy ways.
Believing you are frail, sickly, and overwhelmed, is much more likely to lead you to those conditions than to lead you toward better health. This doesn’t mean you should ignore illness or poor lifestyle habits, but it’s important to care for body, mind, and soul all together. When we perceive emotions, situations, foods, or stressors in absolutes, as “good or bad,” it feeds a habitual deconstruction of our selves and our lives by tinkering with individual parts without reference to the whole. In order to stay healthy, we must take a more holistic perspective, recognizing that the body works in an infinite series of energetic, chemical, and physical interactions amongst systems. And instead of dwelling on fear of illness, frailty, and breakdown, remember that you are adaptable, resilient, and fully capable of living in good health.