The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged all of us into a new and frightening way of living. In an unprecedented global health crisis, it’s natural to be experiencing anxiety, depression, or other forms of mental distress like a lack of motivation.
It may seem like quackery, but data shows that ‘positive thinking’, i.e. constructive, happy, or simply contented thoughts, can actively contribute to boosting your immunity.
It has therefore never been more important to take care of your mental health, and be kind to yourself.
This is not to say that positive thinking will prevent you from contracting COVID-19. There are no definitive answers in this burgeoning field. But there is a growing body of evidence that supports the idea that your immunity could benefit from positive thought.
It’s important to note that positive thinking does not involve ignoring frightening thoughts altogether; that’s avoidance. Positive thinking is all about having the right tools to equip you to address frightening situations or thoughts head on, and still find meaning, enjoyment and comfort in life.
The brain and body are linked
Once rejected as fanciful, the idea that the brain could potentially impact the immune system was vindicated in the 1980s and 1990s by studies that showed how the brain was directly wired to the immune system.
In a 2014 study at the University of Queensland, researcher Dr Elise Kalokerinos and her team from UQ’s School of Psychology followed 50 adults, aged 65-90 years, across two years.
Participants were shown a series of positive and negative photos, which they were later asked to remember. Their immune function was simultaneously measured through a series of blood tests.
When reviewed up to two years later, participants who recalled more positive than negative images had antibodies in their blood suggesting stronger immune systems than those of their counterparts. The findings indicate a positive feedback loop between immune health and psychological health, two intricately connected systems.
Evidence indicates that the impacts of optimism on immunity are strong in cases of one-off, incidental illness, but do not carry through to chronic or persistent diseases. It’s therefore important to remember that positive thinking is not a panacea for physical wellness, but it can and does have demonstrable effects on the way your body responds to new diseases.
How can I manage and tolerate uncertainty?
Given the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s natural to get caught up in a state of panic, or simply lose your rhythm and motivation.
The stress, anxiety and financial hardships that most people are experiencing as a result of this pandemic make maintaining a semblance of normality very difficult.
Learning to tolerate uncertainty is important, but what tools can we use to put this into practice when we are all stuck inside?
The most important step in tolerating uncertainty is facing it head on.
The ironic truth is that a huge part of the destructive impact of anxiety comes from not acknowledging it, and instead burying it.
In psychology, this is known as the “avoidance paradox”; that the more you avoid something that causes you anxiety, the more debilitating your anxiety about that thing becomes.
Confronting and tolerating uncertainty, then, requires resilience. Resilience is not a character trait but a skill, a behaviour that you can learn through practice.
Outside of accessing a counsellor for online or face to face appointments that can help you – you can also practice training resilience at home.
If there are anxieties niggling at your mind that you can’t seem to shake, write them down and use this exercise to help address feelings of panic.
A simple practice like this can minimise catastrophising and reinforce your resilience. It can also show you how much of a comfort you can be to yourself, and be an important source of self-love.
Calmness and a clear mind
Practicing mindfulness can allow you to place anxieties into context and maintain a sense of calm in stressful times. It’s no secret that a calm mind promotes a healthy body.
Exercise: Set aside 10 minutes to sit in a chair and listen to this particular exercise, the Eye of the Hurricane Meditation:
This video is a helpful tool because it offers a practical way to see and understand the feeling of being ‘in the eye of the storm’; seeing the chaos, but maintaining a health barrier between it and you, so that you can be the calm in the eye (or the centre) of the storm.
A helpful way to counterbalance anxiety is to focus on gratitude, specifically the things you have in your life that you are grateful for and what they mean to you.
Aspiring to perfection paradoxically tends to make us less likely to learn and grow; learning to accept the positives of your current situation can build all those helpful tools – resilience and calmness – that can actually help you thrive in the long run.
Various studies over the past decade have indicated that practicing gratitude can potentially have positive impacts on your physical health as well as your mental health, for example by reducing symptoms such as headaches, nausea, shortness of breath and sore muscles.
Gratitude is not always about counting your blessings, but sometimes about counting the ways in which you are good at managing and overcoming challenges.
This exercise is quick and simple but can produce a surprisingly efficient boost to your self-esteem and general level of gratitude.
Perspective: focus on what you can control, and release what you can’t
Anxiety, stress and panic are often a response to a fear that makes you feel out of control. These kinds of feelings are perfectly understandable in the context of a global pandemic.
One way to manage this overwhelming fear is to focus on what you can control, and recognising that the things out of your control will not offer you any benefit if you worry excessively about them.
And most importantly, be kind to yourself.
Know that it’s perfectly normal for your mental health to take a hit during these times. Know also that it won’t last forever, and that for as long as it does last you have the skills and tools within you to tolerate and perhaps even find positivity under these conditions. Your mind and your immune system will thank you.
If you think you could gain from some skilled support, face to face and online counselling services are available. Medicare rebates or bulkbilling are available for many face to face and online services. You can call 1300 735 030 to discuss your support needs with one of our intake consultants.
 https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/is_gratitude_good_for_your_health https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/a_thnx_a_day_keeps_the_doctor_away https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/application_uploads/Emmons-CountingBlessings.pdf
Amalyah Hart is a freelance journalist and content writer, specialising in science communication. She has a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Oxford and is enrolled in a Master of Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She writes on psychology, health and health policy, and the environment. She also works in public policy consulting, specialising in the healthcare sector.