In The Immune Power Personality (Dutton,1995), Henry Dreher outlined how character traits can build resistance to disease. Since then a range of experts have supported Dreher’s conclusions. What are some of these traits and how can we foster them?
Attention, Connection, Expression
Dr. Dreher calls this the ACE Factor. Simply defined, this is our awareness of bodily sensations and emotions. How does this aid immunity? Attention to tension and fatigue means we are more likely to do something about them. Connection refers to empathy and our capacity to build and maintain friendships. Self-expression is a factor when we confide in our friends, and we can also express ourselves through journaling.
Similarly, psychologist Dr. Robert Gerzon, author of Finding Serenity in the Age of Anxiety (Bantam Books, 1997) believes that acceptance of a problem leads to awareness, which blossoms into problem-solving action. Dr. Gerzon emphasizes that the best actions are taken after quietly reflecting on our emotions and thoughts without judgment. If this sounds familiar to you, you’ve probably just emerged from a meditation class. If it doesn’t, it’s not too late to start. All forms of meditation allow dormant feelings and beliefs to surface. From here our conscious mind can wash them away.
Confine and Confess
After recognizing our concerns and their connected feelings we can express them. If done effectively, this can help resolve our problems. To facilitate this, choose someone you trust who is nonjudgmental. Request that they not interrupt as you pour your heart out. If you don’t know of an appropriate person to talk to, you can try talking to yourself–through a journal. (If you’re worried about privacy, find a lock or a fantastic hiding place.) A 1999 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that “patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis who wrote about the most stressful experiences in their lives experienced a reduction in symptoms…These gains were beyond those attributable to the standard medical care that all participants were receiving.”
The Power of No
Assertiveness–knowing our boundaries–is also a partner in immunity. “Studies show that with women whose anger is repressed, their NK (natural killer) cells are also repressed–that means less immunity,” says Dr. Gabor Mat?author of When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress (Knopf Canada, 2003). Dr. Mat?has also written that “any chronic condition from eczema to colitis is the body’s way of saying no.”
Sat Dharam Kaur, ND, co-author of The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to Breast Cancer (Robert Rose, 2003) also believes in the healing power of assertiveness. Her “Healthy Breast Program” incorporates exercises in assertiveness and anger release.
Judging by statistics from Health Canada, the only thing that matches the kindness of our elders is their work ethic; 23 percent of our seniors volunteer. A hidden payoff of this altruism is a knockout punch to potential illness. Seniors in Canada who volunteer on a regular basis show improved quality of life, stronger social networks, increased levels of physical activity, and lower mortality rates. Dr. Dreher defines “healthy helping,” such as volunteering, as an essential immune-building force.
How does healthy helping differ from unhealthy helping? Dreher writes that it involves pacing yourself, getting support, and not trying to rescue the whole world.
Most relationships have a hidden power dynamic, which is why leaving the lid off the toothpaste can erupt into a verbal brawl. Fighting for control doesn’t just feel exhausting, it is exhausting. Dr. Dreher dedicates a chapter in his book to the value of replacing power-struggles with unconditional love. This concept, however, is not new. Motivational psychologist Dr. David McClelland pioneered research into the health benefits of bonding rather than judging. In an April 1989 issue of the American Journal of Psychology, he writes, “A stressed power motive syndrome is associated with release of stress hormones, depressed immune functions, and greater susceptibility to infectious diseases.”
If you’re shy about reaching out to people, think about getting a pet. Surveys conducted during the 1990s in Australia, Britain, Germany, and the United States all show that pets
provide health benefits, including fewer doctor visits.
These immune-positive personality traits won’t replace a healthy diet, exercise, and complementary therapies, but they’re proven, powerful tools in preventing illness.