Psychoneuroimmunology is an evolving field which explores how our psychological condition and neurological processes effect the functioning of our immune systems. The basic premise of psychoneuroimmunology is that psychological factors influence the functioning of various aspects of our nervous systems, which in turn affect our immune systems to some degree.
Since its beginnings in the early 1980s, the field of psychoneuroimmunology has produced a number of breakthroughs in our understanding of how the brain and the immune system interact. Stress and emotional responses, for instance, have long been known to change chemical levels in the bloodstream that effect the functioning of the immune system. But immune cells have also been shown to respond directly to the same chemicals our brain and nerve cells use to communicate with each other.
An increasing number of physiological findings support the concept of a direct relationship between central nervous system reactions and immune system response (Ballieux, 1988). There is a well-documented relationship between the endocrine system (hormone producing glands) and the immune system. Cortical steroids (a group of hormones), for instance, have been used to suppress the immune system response after the transplantation of new organs or tissues. It has now been shown that lymphocytes (white blood cells) carry molecular structures on the outside of the cell that serve as receptors for cortical steroids. Furthermore, it has been shown that hormones produced in the brain, the so-called endorphins, influence the production of anti-bodies. A second way in which the central nervous system influences the immune response is through the peripheral nervous system. Recently discovered anatomical connections show how this system innervates the lymphoid glands and other structures in the body where lymphoid cells are produced and developed.
According to the findings from the field of psychoneuroimmunology, the pathway between “mind” and “body” can be conceptualized as a five-step process:
1) Perception of an external situation or stimulus (e.g., a stressful event).
2) Autonomous nervous system reaction.
3) Biochemical and physiological changes.
4) Immune system reaction.
5) Health consequences.
As an example, in experiments where animals are subjected to stressful situations (for instance unavoidable electrical shock or disturbance of the night/day rhythm) the animals show a suppression of their immune responses. In one study (Ader & Cohen, 1981) rats were given a red colored, sweet flavored water. Initially, the water was tainted with a substance that made the rats ill by suppressing their immune responses. The researchers measured how long it took the rats to figure out that their illness was being caused by what was in the water, and cease to drink it. The researchers then stopped tainting the water and measured how long it took the rats to determine the water was again safe to drink. At a certain point in the study, the researchers noticed that many of the rats were dying at a very early age, even though they were drinking water that was perfectly safe. When they measured the immune system functioning of the rats, however, they discovered that it was dramatically suppressed, especially after the rats drank the water. Through the process of conditioning, they were suppressing their own immune responses, to the point of their own destruction. Interestingly, however, animal researchers also report that stressful situations that seem to involve an element of ‘newness’ or ‘excitement’ may actually enhance the immune response. This raises an important issue relating to strategies for coping with stressful situations. How can one psychologically frame, evaluate and respond to stressful situations, for instance, in such a way that they generate minimal or even beneficial autonomic and immune reactions?
NLP has developed a number of techniques based on the discoveries of psychoneuroimmunology. The Allergy Process I developed, for example, uses the psychological process of disassociation and finding counter-examples to help shift the reaction of the autonomic nervous system to stimuli which usually trigger an allergic reaction. This results in the reconditioning of the immune response to the allergen.
Other NLP methods, such as the use of visualization, submodalities, and verbal affirmations for healing which help to establish a positive ‘response expectancy’ can also influence immune functioning. NLP techniques such as Futurepacing, the New Behavior Generator, the Submodality Swish, Logical Level Alignment, and the Belief Installation Procedure help to increase outcome expectancy, and condition appropriate immune system reactions. All of these formats operate by helping people to build a richer, multi-sensory mental map of future actions and desired states.
Other NLP techniques help people to change limiting beliefs and expectations that can suppress the immune system by creating states of stress or by producing “negative response expectancy” (similar to the rats that drank the red colored, sweet flavored water). Techniques such as Conflict Integration, Reimprinting, the Belief Change Cycle, Belief Outframing and Sleight of Mouth are all examples of processes which can influence immune system functioning by altering or updating beliefs.
Here is a basic process for using NLP to bolster your immune response:
NLP Immune System Boosting Technique
1. Enter into a dissociated state in which you are observing yourself as you are now.
Lean back comfortably and tilt your head and eyes upward. Imagine yourself floating back above yourself and looking down on yourself as if you were in the projection booth of a movie theater looking at yourself sitting in the audience.
2. Establish your desired state.
On the movie screen in front of you, see yourself being the "vital and healthy you" with the resources to move through any health challenges. Visualize the "vital and healthy you."
3. Identify and anchor for reference experiences for a strong immune system.
Search your memory for:
a. Times when you healed quickly and easily from a cut, injury, illness or infection.
b. Times when you avoided getting an illness or infection that others had around you.
c. Times when you felt vital and healthy for an extended period.
d. Things that may be “toxic” to others but that do not bother you (e.g., perfumes, gasoline, cigarette smoke, etc.)
• Now put yourself into each of these reference experiences – see what you saw, hear what you heard and especially feel what you felt. What were the key inner experiences and sensations associated with the sense of being vital, healthy and having a strong immune system?
• Decide which anchor or association you want to use to remind you of those reference experiences—either a mental picture, a word, a gesture or an object.
• Put yourself again into the resourceful reference experience. When the feeling is strong, connect it to your anchor (recall the mental picture or word, make the gesture or hold the object).
• The more you repeat the use of this anchor, the more automatically you'll experience the resources you've associated with it.
4. Mentally rehearse the experience of having a bolstered immune system.
Using your anchor, visualize again the "vital and healthy you" responding appropriately and resourcefully in the key contexts and situations that you may encounter in the coming hours, days and months. Put yourself into the picture and live what you have visualized, seeing what you see, hearing what you hear and feeling what you feel. Memorize the sensations of having a bolstered immune system and being the "vital and healthy you."
Repeat this process until you feel that is automatic and “in your muscle.” It is a powerful way to create a resourceful response expectancy that can improve your health and potentially save your life.