Mindful health

There are many strategies we can use for improving immune system health and mental health during winter and pandemic conditions. Research has demonstrated many times over that regular moderate exercise, sufficient restful sleep, stress-reduction practices and good nutrition can improve immune function and mood. 

Nearly 11 months after the word coronavirus (aka COVID-19 or SARS CoV-2) seeped into our daily conversations, many are still experiencing distress dealing with the virus’s effects on our lives. Interior Alaska’s winter has added another layer of difficulty — the darkness and cold have added to isolation, anxiety and the daily efforts of avoiding a deadly disease. 

Whether you are feeling low because of isolation imposed by COVID-19 restrictions or by diminished daylight hours, isolation and depression can affect your immune system and health. Published research in the Journal of Aging and Health showed that health effects of social isolation added $6.7 billion to Medicare spending.

While a straight line can’t be drawn between isolation and immune system functioning, stress/distress and depression that often accompany isolation are known to disrupt healthy immune responses and contribute to chronic inflammatory diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Other immune boosting and stress-reducing health habits often fall by the wayside when we are isolated or depressed. 

There are many strategies that we can all use for improving immune system health and mental health during winter and pandemic conditions. Research has demonstrated many times over that regular moderate exercise, sufficient restful sleep, stress-reduction practices and good nutrition can improve immune function and mood. One additional tool for helping ourselves involves using the power of the mind, or at the risk of sounding unscientific, positive thinking.

Our thoughts have powerful effects on our feelings, physiology and behaviors. To put you in touch with how mind power can produce changes in the body, try imagining eating a favorite food. Picturing the food in your mind and how it looks and tastes will likely increase saliva in your mouth. An alternate image you can try is picturing yourself biting into a lemon slice. Most people will pucker and salivate when holding this image in their minds. The force of your mind and imagination were all it took to change physiology. Using your mind’s power with positive thinking can cause physiological changes and support your health. 

Changing our thoughts to work in our favor isn’t just willpower. Psychologists offer systematic steps to help us change our thoughts.

The first step is to “listen” to the things that you are saying to yourself. On a typical, dark winter day, my self-talk goes like this: “I’m too tired, I can’t get up.” From there, it escalates to “I am never going to get my work done” and “I am a real failure.” Many of us take our thoughts to a level called “worst-case thinking.” For example, you begin fretting about a communication problem with a co-worker. The worst-case thinking leads to “She/he is going to hate me forever” or “I am going to have to quit my job.” These thoughts do not help us take action or solve any problems. We become emotionally paralyzed and experience more stress and anxiety.

After becoming aware of our thoughts, we can work to change them. Write your thoughts down and ask yourself the following questions: Is this a helpful thought? Is this an accurate or realistic thought? Can I look at this problem from another point of view? How have I solved this type of problem in the past? What has happened to me in similar situations? These questions usually confirm that many of our worries are for naught, or that we may know how to solve our problems.

The third step is to develop a strategy for changing our thoughts and making more helpful thoughts our new habit. One thing that we can do is create replacement messages. This doesn’t mean denying reality — just substituting a more helpful message.

My morning self-talk could change to “I feel tired, but I’ll feel better when I get up — I am looking forward to today” or “I can get up now, get something done and rest again later.” Other strategies that give us a break from unhelpful thoughts include taking a calming mental imagery walk; finding a mental symbol for your “stop (the thought) sign;” going for a walk, exercising or calling a friend; or by making a small plan for tackling your problem.

Helpful ways of thinking can become a habit with a little practice and attention. As your stress goes down, you may find that you are less anxious and irritable. You might even be encouraged to take on other helpful, immune-supportive behaviors — better nutrition, less junk food; more exercise and less TV; or making contact with friends. A final tip — people who help others are happier and healthier so find a way to reach out to someone who is isolated knowing that it will be good for both of you. And, use the force — the force of your mind, that is, to stay healthier and happier this winter.

Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and the Tanana District health, home and family development agent for the Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She can be reached at 907-474-2426 or lashallcross@alaska.edu.