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June 09, 2020

Your Brain Has an Immune System and Here’s How it Can Help You

You’ve heard of your body’s immune system, but did you know that your brain has one too? This psychological immune system protects your emotional health just as your physiological immune system protects your physical health. 

Emily Rosenzweig, a senior behavioral scientist at Ochsner Health, a healthcare system in Louisiana, says to think of the psychological immune system like this: “A range of mental processes triggered by a threat to our sense of self-esteem, self-worth and self-concept.”

Here's what you need to know about this emotional protector. 

How Does the Psychological Immune System Work?

It may sound like psychobabble, but the psychological immune system was actually coined by Harvard University social psychologist Daniel Gilbert. Gilbert and social psychologist Timothy Wilson, Ph.D., of the University of Virginia and their students studied people’s ability to make predictions of their emotional responses to future events. 

Gilbert, Wilson and their students found “that people aren't good at forecasting their responses to emotional incidents. In particular, the researchers have found that people typically overestimate how long they will be unhappy following negative events.”

The researchers found that most people forget they have a "psychological immune system," which shelters them from the worst effects of their misfortune.

Your psychological immune system helps you facilitate the return of positive emotions after experiencing negative emotions. When we experience a negative event, we often experience negative emotions, which can be quite strong. Our psychological immune system helps us make sense of these negative events in a self-protective way. 

For example, if you interviewed for your dream job but didn’t get the position, you’d probably expect to feel upset for a week or two. But we often underestimate how other events in our lives — a call from a friend, receiving an unexpected gift — can also influence our feelings in a positive way. The researchers also found that we are skilled at making the best of bad situations even if we don’t think we are. 

How You Can Boost Your Psychological Immune System

Positive self-talk can help you counteract negative emotions. And just like getting regular exercise can help boost your physiological immune system, it can also boost your psychological immune system. Regular exercise helps reduce stress and anxiety. Try taking a short walk daily or participating in yoga. If you can’t get outside, try taking an exercise class on YouTube or from an app on your phone. 

Having goals and motivation also plays a strong role in strengthening your psychological immune system.

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