During times of immense stress and anxiety like we’re experiencing now, it’s hard to find the motivation for self-care. We might feel the urge to curl up in a ball or distract ourselves by binge-watching Netflix or scrolling through social media. However, to counteract stress, it’s essential to do activities that support your physical and mental health. Fortunately, self-care practices are also good ways to boost your immune system.
Because of the mind and body connection, stress in our minds translates into stress in our bodies. But we can tap into that connection in positive ways as well. When we engage in activities and habits that support our mental and emotional well-being, we’re also optimizing our body’s functioning, including our immune system response.
The good news is, there are many simple ways to boost your immune system, as well as your state of mind and overall wellness and resilience. And these approaches can be done at home or in your backyard, on your own or with family members. While they may seem like common sense rather than science, all of the suggestions we share with you below are evidence-based practices proven to promote both physical and mental health.
The Mental Health-Immunity Link
How are stress and the immune system linked? Here’s how: When we experience anxiety and feel threatened, our nervous systems go into what’s known as the sympathetic mode. This mode is also called the stress response or the fight-flight-freeze response.
When the stress response is activated for a short period of time as a result of acute distress, the immune response is enhanced, in order to ward off immediate threats. But when we’re in the fight-flight-freeze mode over a long period of time, the activation of stress hormones in the body draws resources away from the immune system. Therefore, chronic stress can increase our susceptibility to disease, according to scientists.
The counterpart to the sympathetic nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s also known as the relaxation response or the rest-and-digest mode. When we can shift our body into the relaxation response by doing calming and creative activities, our biological systems work more efficiently. In addition, we enhance our stress resilience. Stress resilience is our ability to weather hard times and recover more quickly from challenging and frightening experiences. And better stress resilience is one of the most significant benefits of mental health practices.
8 Ways to Boost Your Immune System
Here are a few ways to tap into the mind and body connection during this time of staying at home. These are all great ways to support physical and mental health.
Write in a journal. One study tracked the link between journaling and immune function, and found that writing about emotions increased immune cells, or T-cells. Keeping a gratitude journal is a good way to focus on the positive during times of stress and worry. Research shows that health benefits of gratitude include reduced depressive symptoms and a stronger resilience to stress.
Positive connections: One of the best ways to boost your immune system and your mental health is by enjoying time with others. That might be in person if you’re at home with family, or virtually with other friends and family. Research shows that positive relationships have multiple health benefits.
Practice good sleep hygiene. Ideally, head to bed at the same time every night, and get up around the same time every morning. This is also a great way to help create structure in your day if you’re not able to engage in your usual activities. Sleep and the immune system are closely linked.
Find things that make you laugh! Whether it’s stand-up comedy, a movie that always makes you laugh, or playing with your pets, get some giggles in every day. According to a number of studies, laughter boosts the immune system.
Get moving. Dancing, yoga, and working out are all great for well-being, mental health, and physical health. You can find guided classes online, or just put on great music and start moving! If you have a backyard, run around or do some yoga outdoors. Families can do yoga together.
Be creative and express yourself. Activities that promote self-expression and creativity are essential ways to boost your immune system, because they produce positive emotions. Sing, make art, write a poem, or color in a coloring book.
Meditate. Meditation is powerful for counteracting the negative associations between stress and the immune system. There are lots of guided meditation apps to choose from. Just a few minutes of simply breathing slowly and deeply can help shift the body into the relaxation response.
Eat well. We all know that eating nourishing food supports the body, and that includes the immune system. And good nutrition also supports mental health. There are specific nutrients that promote brain function and help regulate emotions.
Be well and have fun!
Integr Comp Biol. 2014 Sep;54(3):419-26.
Psychosom Med. 2004 Mar-Apr;66(2):272-5.
J Clin Psych. 2017 Oct;73(20):1280–1300.
J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003 Feb; 84(2): 365–376.
Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2009 Jun; 6(2): 159–164.