Psychoneuroimmunology and Aromatherapy: A Neuropsychologist’s Perspective

The Stress Response:

The “Stress Response”, which is also called the “Fight or Flight Response” was first described by Hans Selye in the early 1970’s and still offers one of the best illustrations of the mind/body connection. The Stress Response occurs when a person experiences something that they perceive to be threatening. When the Stress Response is activated, the brain stimulates the release of a cocktail of chemicals that prepare the body to fight or flee. As a result, the body experiences increases in blood pressure, respiratory rate, heart rate, blood flow to skeletal muscles and other physiological changes. These physiological changes aid the body in surviving an immediate threat by temporarily increasing strength, speed and aggressiveness and decreasing sensitivity to pain but they have also been shown to cause short term decreases in immune function.

The Stress Response has been with us throughout our evolutionary development but in earlier times it was self-limiting – it enabled us to save ourselves when a lion charged but then, because of built-in feedback loops, it shut off and neural firing and chemical activity returned to baseline levels. Today, the Stress Response has become a threat to health because it can be repeatedly provoked by routine events, like an angry boss or a hectic commute, and, for some, has become a chronic way of responding. For those who are chronically “stressed out”, the nervous system is in a constant state of excitation and the Stress Response is experienced over and over again, causing the built-in feedback loops that should shut the system off to fail, resulting in weakened immune function. In time, the adrenal glands may become exhausted, leading to symptoms of weakness, dizziness, tiredness, headaches, memory problems, allergies, and more serious illnesses.

Effects of Stress on Health:

This type of chronic stress can have a profoundly damaging effect on the mind and body because a strong and balanced immune system is something that is absolutely necessary to the maintenance of health and vigor. It fights off infections that originate outside the body and diseases, such as cancer, that originate within the body, and it initiates and coordinates the healing process. A functional immune system is almost as vital to even your short-term survival as is a functional heart. If your heart stops beating you will be dead in about four to six minutes. If your immune system were to completely stop functioning all together, you would be dead within less than an hour or so because that’s how quickly your body would be overwhelmed by the reproduction of unopposed bacteria and other pathogens.

In addition to waging this constant battle against outside pathogens, your immune system is also protecting you constantly from abnormal cells produced within your body through mutation, including malignant cancer cells, by destroying them before they can cause problems. However your immune system not only needs to be strong enough to do these jobs, it also needs to be balanced because an immune system that’s too strong or active will attack things from inside or outside the body that it shouldn’t, or will attack them too aggressively. So, for example, allergies are produce when your immune system over-responds to the presence of something from outside your body, like pollen, and autoimmune diseases, like Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, are produced when your immune system attacks normal, healthy cells.

In the last decade, the medical community has come to realize that mental states and personality patterns are linked to the development of many illnesses and to the recovery from even more. Research in the field of PNI has demonstrated, for example, that personality traits such as pessimism or emotional states such as depression raise the risk of developing many illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, hypertension, autoimmune disease, asthma, diabetes, and arthritis. Even mimicking negative emotions or watching a violent movie cause short-term reductions in the number and activity of various immune cells.

For those who doubt that personality can play a role in the development of disease, consider the phenomena, well known in psychiatry, in cases of multiple personality disorder (Dissociative Identity Disorder) where one “persona” will have a disease, such as diabetes, allergies, asthma, or hypertension, and other “personas”, living in the same body, won’t show any laboratory findings or symptoms of that disease.

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