Did you know that your immune system, the body’s complex process of protecting you from illness and disease, is profoundly influenced by your emotions? It’s true: Anger, joy, love, depression, compassion and any of many other possible emotions affect your immune system and, ultimately, your health and well-being. Positive emotions, naturally, can help strengthen the immune system, while negative emotions can deplete it.
The effects of two specific emotions – care and compassion – on the immune system have been of particular interest to researchers, who have studied this phenomenon for decades.
How Genuine Care and Compassion Affect Us
In the mid-1990s, Institute of HeartMath Director of Research Rollin McCraty and a research team wanted to go beyond a 1980s experiment by Harvard Psychologist Dr. David McClelland, who found that immune-system functioning, as measured by IgA, or secretory immunoglobulin A levels, increased in students who were shown a video about Mother Teresa.
McCraty and the team wanted to know whether self-induced care would have the same effect as vicarious care, so they began by duplicating McClleland’s experiment and produced very similar results in their study, The Physiological and Psychological Effects of Compassion and Anger. After study participants had learned the Institute of HeartMath’s Freeze-Frame® Technique, they were instructed to employ it to help them intentionally feel care and compassion for five minutes.
Several days later, they were asked to feel five minutes of self-induced anger by remembering a situation or experience that made them angry and trying to recapture the feeling they had at the time.
The results McCraty and the team obtained were quite remarkable: In both cases, IgA samples were taken immediately after and then every hour to six hours. After five minutes of intentionally feeling care and compassion, the subjects had an immediate 41 percent average increase in their IgA levels. After one hour, IgA levels returned to normal, but slowly increased over the next six hours.
The researchers observed that self-induced care resulted in a much larger rise in IgA than the care experienced by viewing a Mother Teresa video. In some individuals, IgA increased as much as 240 percent immediately after they performed the Freeze-Frame Technique. Interestingly, there also was an 18 percent increase in IgA levels when the participants experienced anger, but an hour later, their IgA levels had dropped to only about half of what they were before the anger. Even after six hours, their IgA levels were still not back to normal.
Key findings: Heart-focused, sincere, positive feeling states boost the immune system, while negative emotions may suppress the immune response for up to six hours following an emotional experience. Read the abstract or the entire study: The Physiological and Psychological Effects of Compassion and Anger, 1995, Rein, Atkinson and McCraty: http://www.heartmath.org/research/research-publications/physiological-and-psychological-effects-of-compassion-and-anger.html.
Care, But Don’t Overcare
"A drop of genuine compassion is more effective than a gallon of drama-based sympathy, which often drains sender and receiver as the day ends." – Doc Childre, founder HeartMath
The quote above appears on Childre’s website, www.heart-basedliving.org. There he explains the site of the difference and importance of distinguishing between care and overcare. The following is excerpted from that explanation.
Care from your genuine heart regenerates your system, while overcare drains and debilitates your system. Overcare is when the mind and emotions cross the line of balanced care and get too attached and bogged down with whomever or whatever they care about. Once you become too entangled in another’s web and realize your energy is drained from overcare and attachment, you often can be seduced into blaming and resenting the people or issues you care about.
As you become trapped in the blame and judgment loop, you drain energy further because judgment and blame are energies that are not aligned with our heart of hearts or the way of spirit so they feed back into our system. The nature of our true heart is designed to care and support others, but it’s an individual responsibility to learn to discern and balance the personal energy and feelings that go out to others and within yourself.
Judgments are energies that are accountable, and their deficits play out within our mental, emotional and physical systems, even if we are unaware of it. Storing judgment and blame is counter-intuitive and counterproductive to personal empowerment, wholeness health, and resonance with yourself or others.
A HeartMath Tip: Below is a simple exercise adapted from HeartMath’s Cut-Thru® Technique to help you achieve emotional coherence, which has been shown in many studies to improve the efficiency of the immune system. The Cut-Thru Technique is discussed in greater detail in the HeartMath book, Transforming Anxiety by Childre and Deborah Rozman.
- Be aware of how you feel about an issue at hand.
- Breathe a positive feeling or attitude.
- Be objective, as if the issue or problem is someone else’s.
- Rest peacefully in this neutral state, allowing your heart intelligence to offer new perspectives and possibilities.
- Soak and relax all resistances and disturbing or perplexing feelings in your heart’s compassion.
- Ask for guidance, and then be patient and receptive. While awaiting an answer from your heart, find something or someone to genuinely appreciate.
"Increasing your care for the concerns of the global whole brings spirit and increased empowerment to the personal self. Practicing wholeness care advances your effectiveness in self-care and manifestation of joy and personal peace." – Doc Childre