A small, destructive virus enters the body. White blood cells are alerted, and they begin their crusade against the foreign tyrant. The body’s defensive macrophages break down the insidious invader, ensuring its inability to multiply and further hurt the system. The immune system raised its immediate, automatic defense, and successfully protected the body from harm.
We’re all familiar with the basic mechanisms of the immune system—an invader comes into the system, and immune cells wage war on it as best they can. But did you know your mind takes a similar approach when trying to deal with negative emotions, life stressors, and trauma?
Psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Tim Wilson draw a metaphor between our psyche and the immune system with the idea of a psychological immune system. This concept refers to the way our minds work to essentially “fend off” stressful events—whether by changing the way we view them, identify positives from them, or create meaning from them.
In a sense, the capacity of our psychological immune system to manage adverse experiences is our resilience. This is our ability to mentally bounce back from stressful experiences and process them effectively, so we can move forward in life. In today’s blog, we’re reviewing four ways you can develop mental resilience so that past trauma and current stressors don’t hold you back, and you can experience life with less stress and more calm.
1. Understand, Acknowledge, & Reframe Your Negativity Bias
Humans, by evolution, have a negativity bias, which is our tendency to fixate on negative outcomes and experiences more than positive or neutral ones. From an evolutionary perspective, this is protective. For example, if I can better remember the location where I saw a saber tooth tiger because of the fear I experienced in the moment I saw it, then I’m more likely to remember to avoid that same area and, by consequence, avoid the risk of harm that comes with running into a predator again.
In today’s modern life—where the risk of encountering a saber tooth tiger doesn’t exist —your negativity bias may come up in a few ways. You may have a beautiful beach weekend with your partner, but maybe you had a disagreement at one point about how much money to spend there. When you think about the trip, your first thought is the disagreement, rather than the peaceful moments on the beach or loving moments with your partner. At work, you may similarly remember conflicts and constructive feedback more strongly than your successes.
So, what can you do about this tilt towards the negative? First, start noticing your thoughts when there’s a mix of positive and negative feedback or experiences. How do you, specifically, relate to constructive or negative experiences? Do you highlight and fixate on them, or do they pass by more readily?
When you become mindful of your own pattern of negativity bias, you can start modifying it. For instance, if you recently received some constructive feedback on your job, notice any negative thoughts that come through, but then reframe the situation: This feedback was provided to help me in my career, not derail me, so how will this feedback help me going forward? What positive feedback did I receive in the job review? How can I remind myself of the positives more frequently? (writing in a journal, putting them on a post-it, adding notes to a calendar, etc.) You can use a similar stream of questions when confronting your negativity bias elsewhere in life.
- Be aware of your natural tendency towards negativity bias and recognize it as a part of your psychological immune system trying to protect you
- Actively work towards recognizing the positive moments
2. Affirmation Ladders
In a moment of stress or negativity, the advice of “just think positive!” can feel more defeating than helpful. To help you shift from a negative to more positive effect, start small: aim to feel neutral, and then work up to positive.
This is a concept called building affirmation ladders. When you’re in a spiral of negative self-talk, feeling shame from a mistake at work, or stressed with a 100 to-do’s on your planner, the goal is to get into a state of feeling neutral, rather than feeling positive. To do this, you’ll use affirmations or guiding statements that might remind you that you have a sense of agency, that are only focusing on the things you can control, or that the moment will pass. It depends on the situation, but you can consider mantras like:
- This moment will pass, and I will be okay.
- I cannot control everything. I am only focused on the things I can control.
- I am safe in my body and in this moment.
Experiment with some different affirmations and notice which get you into a neutral state more effectively. A lot of bolstering your psychological immune system is about finding the words, tips, and tools that work specifically for you—we encourage you to write out some ideas for guiding mantras that match your stressors and needs!
Try this positive affirmation video
3. Aligning With Your Purpose
One of the most beneficial things you can do for your psychological immune system is identify your core values and purpose. When we say purpose, it doesn’t have to be some huge, specific goal like building a Fortune 500 company or becoming the world’s most successful doctor. It can be simple but beautiful things, too—being a supportive friend, building a happy family, finding fulfillment in your work. You can think of it as the mountaintop you’re climbing towards with the experiences of your life.
When you have a clear, thematic purpose in your life, it guides your actions and can help you make peace with more difficult experiences on the road to your purpose. For example, let’s say you want a happy, long-term partnership, but going on first dates makes you nervous. To overcome that anxiety, it is helpful to remind yourself that your first dates are the first step to the ultimate purpose you want to live out with your life. It reorients your actions in alignment with an overarching goal, helping you cope with the difficulties that may come with some tasks on the journey.
4. Accepting the Negative
Lastly, realize that negative emotions and moments are okay. They are safe to experience. They are a part of life and being a human.
When you get sick, your immune system doesn’t say to itself, “Oh my gosh, why does this always happen to me? There must be something inherently wrong with me as a person if this is happening. It’s all my fault.” No—the immune system just gets to work identifying the invader to return the system to normal health. You can think about developing your own resilience like that as well.
Notice if you go into self-blame or negative self-talk spirals telling yourself you shouldn’t experience a certain emotion or feeling. Is that really true? Why should you be completely immune to anger, irritation, or sadness, when those are emotions everyone feels? When you allow yourself to experience the difficult emotion or moment, typically, it will pass through more quickly.
Of course, if you’re experiencing persistent negative emotions that extend for days, weeks, or months at a time, that is a good time to seek support from a licensed mental health professional. Day-to-day negative emotions, however, are a part of life. Learning to accept them and know they will come and go is a powerful way to boost your psychological immune system.
Your psychological immune system is working tirelessly day in and day out to help you cope with stressful and adverse situations. Trying these different tips is like getting extra vitamin C in your diet or a healthy dose of sunshine—they boost your psychological immune system by making you more resilient against difficult situations. Choose one or two to implement this week, and experiment with what works best for you!