The MindBody in Autoimmune Disease
Our immaterial thoughts and emotions impact the material nuts and bolts of our body and vice versa. We get embarrassed, we blush. We get scared, our heart pounds. We feel pressure on one part of our bodies, we feel relief. We feel the same pressure on a different part and we feel anxious. There’s no teasing the mind and body apart.
I want to demonstrate my take on the mind’s influence in the development of autoimmunity by describing how the emotional and immune systems are trained in childhood. Perhaps needless to say, the development of our emotions and our immunity is exceedingly complex, and this is way simplified here to demonstrate the concept in broad strokes. Here we go!
Training the Emotional System
When we are born we are a clean slate, simple perfection. No self-esteem issues, no grudges, nothing to prove, we’re just squishy innocent little babes. Our brains are our primary perceptive and integrative organs, and until about age 6 or 7 they are busy building our impressions of the world, encoding our foundational memories and beliefs (1). At that age kid’s brains actually have a different predominant pattern (theta waves) that facilitates deep learning and emotional integration, similar to what we experience in daydreaming, sleep, and some meditative states. As we grow up, our dreamy theta waves slowly decrease and are replaced by patterns associated more with logical thought and conscious analysis (alpha and beta waves). (2, 3).
This means that we’ve got our basic programming before age 7, and in those formative years we’ve encoded beliefs and corresponding strategies about how to avoid threats to our safety and how to get love. Kids just want to be safe and loved, after all.
Our emotional system is trained to protect the spiritual self.
It shows us what to allow in (what will bring us love), and what to keep out (what threatens us).
In my opinion, this can be one of the first missteps on the long road to autoimmunity. This is because these beliefs and strategies disconnect us from our true selves. I’ll return to this later, but first let’s talk about how the immune system develops.
Training the Immune System
The basic components of the immune system arise from your bone marrow. When you are a wee kiddo, your immune cells travel from the bone marrow to a gland in the center of your chest (between your heart and the sternum) called the thymus. These brand spanking new immune cells come to the thymus to learn about you! They travel through little passages where the walls are peppered with ever-changing snippets of proteins that are the same as those in your own healthy tissue. If they’re a match, they die. In this way, the only immune cells that live are ones that recognize your body’s tissue as it’s loving host, never to be turned against.
The thymus is active from birth, training your immune system who you are, but hits its peak activity from about 3 to maybe 12 years old. After that it gradually disappears and is replaced by fat. (4) Excuse me, thymus. Are you saying we’ve got to know who we are by the time we’re 12?! Fat chance.
Our immune system is trained to protect the physical self.
It shows us what to allow in (what will nourish us) and what to keep out (what threatens us).
Both the emotional and immune systems function to protect us by showing us what to allow in and what to keep out. They are trained by learning who we are, and they develop side by side, inextricably linked as parts of us.
So I hope it will be clear now how I think the beliefs we developed in childhood can lead to autoimmune disease. Say in your childhood you had a strong experience of your mother being critical. You felt that nothing you did was ever good enough to make her proud. You might have formed the belief that in order to get love, you had to be perfect. Or say your father had a short temper, and would lash out at you when you crossed him. You might have formed the belief that it’s not safe to express anger.
These beliefs would have worked well in childhood, but how do you think they would work out in adulthood? You must be perfect, you must suppress your anger. Ugh, no thank you. More importantly, are these beliefs true?
Do you have to be perfect to get love? No.
Do you have to suppress your anger to be safe? No.
These kinds of false beliefs separate us from our true selves. It doesn’t take anything to get love, you are love. Your safety is not dependent on any emotion.
If we don’t recognize our true selves, can we expect our immune system to?
If we’re not clear on who we are, that can be reflected in our immune system.
Uprooting these false beliefs is the most liberating thing I’ve experienced. I believe that optimum health and happiness comes from the inside out, as a result of knowing more deeply who we are and making choices that are in alignment with that.
With that mic dropped, I want to close with this caveat. The onset of autoimmune disease is rarely caused by one thing. Science has demonstrated a ton of other risk factors, and I’m sure we don’t even know the half of it. I think that false beliefs are ONE of the causes of autoimmune disease, albeit an incredibly powerful one.
All of these things can also play a role in the development of autoimmune disease:
Disconnection from nature
Poor gut health
In a small slice of cases, our genes.
I would love to hear your thoughts and questions on this juicy topic! Leave them in the comments below :)