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IV. Emotions and Physiology

        Psycho-neuro-immunology is a promising, exciting, and new field of scientific study that suggests a holistic approach to medicine useful in preventing disease as opposed to just treating disease after it appears. In a time when a holistic approach to medicine could be necessary for improving the health of the many of our global culture, perhaps it is time to look at the basics. The whole field of Psycho-neuro-immunology is based on the idea that biological, psychological, and sociological factors influence one's health and health related behavior. Research scientists working in this field identify factors and use their knowledge of how these factors influence health and health related behavior to build a bio-psycho-social theory useful in predicting the future condition of the body, preventing disease and producing health. 

       According to Psycho-neuro-immunologists, both psychological and social as well as physical stressors can have an adverse effect on any given individual's health. A stressor is any stimulus that makes demands on an organism requiring adaptation or adjustment. There are three types of stress: physical, psychological, and psychosocial. Physical stress involves stressors in the environment. Psychological stress comes from the way we think and feel, the attitudes we possess, and the way we react to those things we find threatening to us, whether the threat is real or imagined. Finally, psychosocial stress involves stressors from interpersonal relationships, arguments or conflicts with family members, neighbors, employers, friends, or others around us. This stress may result from intense social interactions, but it can also occur when there is isolation because of inadequate social interactions.

When stress occurs, the body may respond by becoming immune suppressed. When this occurs the body becomes susceptible to those pathogens that typically are adapted to and is more likely to become ill. Stress sets the stage for disease. Stress may affect the immune system through many different pathways in the body. One of these pathways is the hormone response. In response to stress and accompanying negative emotions such as sadness, fear, and anger, the body releases certain hormones that can adversely affect the immune system. The neuroendocrine system and the catecholamine system are two major pathways of the immune system that release hormones in response to sensory cues and in response to stress can release hormones that adversely affect the immune system. The neuroendocrine system includes the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. It releases hormones such as cortisol, adrenocorticotropic hormone, growth hormone, and beta-endorphins. When a person is under a lot of stress, he or she releases more of these chemicals into the blood stream. These chemicals have an adverse effect on the immune system, lowering its ability to fight disease. The catecholamine system includes hormones such as adrenaline and nor adrenaline. The catecholamine system is the first to go into action in the face of stress and its hormones mostly affect the cardiovascular system. These hormones increase heart rate and blood pressure and reduce immune system responsiveness. Over time, this increase of heart rate and blood pressure can put stress on the heart muscle and even contribute to hypertension.

The nervous system makes connections with many organs in the body that contribute to the functioning of the immune system such as the spleen, lymph nodes, bone marrow and thymus gland.  Many of the chemicals and neurotransmitters produced by the nervous system in response to stress also have profound effects on the functions of the immune system. For example, research is currently underway to study the effects of cortisol on the immune system. When stress occurs, people release cortisol into their blood stream. Over long periods, this release of cortisol can greatly impair the immune system. As of this writing, scientists think that perhaps there is a link between a constant bombardment of cortisol on the immune system and cancer along with a variety of other diseases.

The effect of these kinds of variables on the immune system and the immune systems reciprocal effect on the physical, social, and environmental pathways is the basis for the study of Psycho-neuro-immunology. The underlying idea is that too much stress is bad for our body's bio-psycho-social system. It releases chemicals into the bloodstream that adversely affect the immune systems response to disease. A variety of factors can cause stress in onesí life such as work, school, family life, and so on. All of these factors work together to cause stress in an individual. Perhaps in order to best prevent disease and treat illness, we need to begin to look at the entire realm of our experience, not just focusing on the physiological, but also psychological and social aspects of our life and lifestyle. This is the basis for Psycho-neuro-immunology.

There are many different ways we can lead a healthier lifestyle. The science of Psycho-neuro-immunology focuses on the links between the mind, the brain, and the immune system.  Immunologists, physiologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and neurobiologists now suspect that certain negative psychological states, brought on by adversity or chemical imbalance, actually cause the immune system to falter. Some even go so far as to claim that positive attitudes, such as a feeling of control, may in some way inoculate against disease and act as a valuable supplement to conventional medical care.

Psycho-neuro-immunology involves a broad study of a bio-psycho-social model of stress. Health psychology involves a narrower study of a psychological model of stress. Health psychology focuses specifically on the potential for thoughts, beliefs, and expectations about existence to cause physical health or illness. Here too there is a large emphasis on the promotion of wellness, and the prevention of illness. Health psychologists study how life-styles, activities, emotional reactions, personality characteristics, and the ways that people interpret events influence physical health.

Many influential authorities have only recently recognized health psychology as a field of scientific inquiry. The relationship between the mind and physical health was a widely accepted fact from ancient times and throughout most of history. The discovery of specific biological causes for infectious diseases such as typhoid and syphilis in the late 1800's led doctors to search for only biological causes of diseases, and virtually ignore the influence of behavior on the physical health of people. This attitude has prevailed until only recently, as doctors and other health professionals have begun to work with health psychologists to begin putting research from this field into practice.

Since, health psychologists have identified stress as a potent killer, stopping stressful behavior and promoting healing has been a major emphasis of health psychology. Change of thoughts, beliefs, and expectations about existence has been one of the methods that health psychologists use to reduce stress.

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