Emotional Immunity

Pediatricians and immunologists will confirm that healthy children are born with immunity to certain environmental pathogens (innate immunity). However, a child’s immune system also develops over time based on increased exposure to harmful microorganisms (acquired immunity). As an adult, macrophage cells perpetually scan the body for invading antigens while sending messages to helper T cells that prompt the body’s white blood cells to create antibodies. This arms race of virulent pathogens versus host cells is a non-stop competition for space in biological systems.*

Similarly, human emotions are affected by a never-ending cascade of environmental stimuli; some traumatic, some pernicious, some prosaic, and others exhilarating. Developing resilience requires the construction of an emotional immune system capable of identifying activating life stressors while carefully calibrating the correct behavioral responses. The more exposure one has to life’s unpredictable range of experiences, the more availability one has to adaptively process the outcomes of various events. My personal aphorism and pragmatic default position has always been, “Wisdom is not experience, but rather the interpretation of experience.” How an individual interprets and assimilates life’s occurrences often determines one’s ability to preemptively avoid attaching emotions to uncontrollable outcomes.

The philosopher George Santayana once commented, “Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.” Although this statement may appear disheartening in its declaration of unsentimental realism, a lesson can be imparted regarding the importance of adaptation while developing strategies for navigating stressful terrain. How do we learn to incorporate the experiences of suffering in ways that give us leverage to assess and overcome future obstacles? Are all stressors worth solving (or even capable of being solved)? How do we prioritize our daily concerns while learning to alleviate unnecessary, long-term anxiety?

The word dianoetic means to engage in discursive reasoning rather than reacting with emotional intuition. Likewise, dianoetic therapy is a way of evaluating the degree of stress in our lives, its primary causes, and our options for being selectively indifferent to non-critical hardships by limiting our emotional attachment to outcomes by way of being rational. In contrast, hedging our emotional well-being on the results of a future event is one way to guarantee disappointment, disillusionment, and possibly despair. The more familiar we are with alternative responses to stressors, the more likely those alternatives will emerge in consciousness as plausible coping mechanisms.

Just as the human microbiome depends on the cooperative equilibrium of billions of microorganisms, seemingly inconsequential imbalances often become the precursors to pathology. Similarly, learning to recognize how we successfully responded to unfortunate circumstances in the past presents us with a guide for relying on our emotional immunity to maneuver through challenging life predicaments without losing composure. In other words, in the arms race of tragedies we must develop an arsenal of confrontational strategies.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., has written an ambitiously titled book, The Undefeated Mind, related to similar ideas of developing resilience and discovering our own formula for achieving emotional equanimity. Steeped in the philosophical underpinnings of Nichiren Daishonen’s Buddhism (a thirteenth-century subset of traditional Buddhism), Lickerman explores what it means to combat adversity while discovering contentment in the face of rejection, illness, suffering, and loss. Despite the provocative and principally questionable title, The Undefeated Mind offers a comprehensive overview of the concept that acceptance does not equal browbeaten acquiescence and misfortune does not have to result in nihilism. After all, the first (and often unmentioned) principle of Buddhism is that life involves suffering and a non-anesthetized awareness of pain is required for understanding the fragility of existence. Strength is often equated with physique, but tenacity more often relies on mental endurance. Despite our vulnerabilities and need for “licking our wounds,” we must avoid what the psychologist Daniel Gilbert refers to as affective forecasting (predicting how we’ll feel in the future). None of us can predict how life circumstances will affect us several years from now and each day brings distance between what was once a dire crisis and what may now be an uncomfortable memory. The basic principle of resilience development involves using our memory of previous experiences as a GPS device for adjudicating current stressors and building a library of internal mechanisms for survival in turbulent waters.

Nonetheless, emotional immunity does not mean that our tolerance won’t be profoundly compromised; after all, some levels of agony or disenfranchisement may exist within a realm that requires acceptance of another type altogether. To be clear, I’m not endorsing naïve optimism of the ilk so eloquently critiqued by Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided, or the late Christopher Hitchens in his brutally honest biographical account of living (and dying) with cancer entitled Mortality. Rather, a realistic approach to processing extreme difficulties often depends on context, availability of resources, interpersonal support, and severity of circumstance. It is the type of acceptance described in existential philosophy that ultimately makes life more bearable during insurmountable periods of misery, but our perspective may demand creative action more than contemplation to offset the impact of trauma.

A healthy immune system should be robust enough to recognize external threats without turning on itself by overcorrecting responses to innocuous pathogens. Likewise, emotional immunity requires parsimony by minimizing energy spent on trivial nuisances to retain ammunition for the things that matter most.

Whatever reserves of adaptability and deflection from psychological harm we may cultivate, it is worth remembering that none of us are immune to change.

*For a highly-recommended book concerning the development of biological immunity, read Why We Get Sick by Randolph M. Nesse, M.D., and George C. Williams, PH.D.

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