All you need is love … at least according to The Beatles and their hit song of the same name. In the autoimmune world, we need more than love to survive, but self-love as medicine may just be the missing prescription we need to thrive.
Inflammatory Thoughts Create Inflammatory Bodies
For someone to have an autoimmune disease, many factors must be in place. However, it often takes a single, traumatic event to set it off. For many of us, the onset of disease is traced back to physical or emotional trauma. When an initial stressor isn’t properly managed or healed, the body stays stressed, allowing autoimmunity to continue.
We also know that chronic stress negatively affects the immune system because stress triggers inflammation, our body’s natural defense. The medical paper, “Stress as a Trigger of Autoimmune Disease,” reports that stress-triggered hormones lead to immune dysregulation, which ultimately results in autoimmune disease.”
That’s a very scientific way of saying that chronic stress causes chronic inflammation, which in turn, produces autoimmune conditions.
Therefore, if we are stuck in our trauma (living with PTSD, for example, or perhaps holding on to bitter feelings following a breakup), we ruminate in inflammatory thoughts. This creates an inflammatory body because we remain in a heightened sympathetic, fight-or-flight state.
To regulate the imbalance, use stress management techniques as part of autoimmune disease treatment.
Mental Healing Leads to Physical Healing
The field of psychoneuroimmunology is fairly new and looks at the mind-body connection by evaluating interactions between the central nervous system and the immune system. There have been many scientific studies that prove how giving and receiving love increases oxytocin, dopamine, and adrenaline. Research has also shown that love can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, improve immunity, lessen pain, and reduce stress, and improve cardiovascular health. But what about self-love?
In 2014, Dr. Habib Sadeghi gave a powerful TED Talk in which he described how changing his mindset and inner dialogue around his testicular cancer diagnosis helped him reverse his prognosis by lowering his cortisol levels. In 2017, a Psychology Today article supported this belief, showing how negative self-talk and self-criticism led to adverse physical and mental health.
Moral of the story: Our thoughts have power, so make them positive.
Self-Love as Medicine
We know that giving and receiving love has a positive effect on biochemistry by reducing stress levels, which in turn reduces inflammation, the root cause of most chronic illnesses. If positive changes happen when we love others, imagine when we love ourselves?
So how do we cultivate self-love? It’s more than just repeating loving mantras and being our own hype person. Sure, those things help. After all, you are a badass mom/wife/sister/friend/daughter/bosslady, but you need to really believe what you’re saying. And that often takes practice. Lots of practice. Daily meditation, gratitude journaling, affirmations, and fostering a mindfulness practice can help with this.
Social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson published a study in 2008 in which she found that the symptoms of illness decreased through regular loving kindness meditation. Daily meditation centers us in the moment and allows us to become more self-aware. There are tons of books, videos, and apps like Calm, Breethe, and Insight Timer to try. (Personally, I’ve been taking meditation classes through the Peloton app and loving it!)
For example, gratitude journaling and repeating affirmations (or receiving daily affirmations through apps like Happy Not Perfect and I Am) also help to ground us. Being more self-aware gives us the ability to catch negative self-talk and replace it with more compassionate, kind-hearted language. Reframe your thoughts by shifting your perspective. Focus on your past successes and look for evidence that proves your hostile beliefs wrong. Maybe you’re having a difficult time managing your chronic illness right now and you’re feeling hopeless. Allow yourself to feel that, but then release it; remind yourself that you’ve survived hard days before and you will again because of your strength and fortitude.
The Ripple Effect
Mindfulness breeds self-awareness, and self-awareness breeds self-acceptance. This allows us to release judgement and truly accept ourselves — flaws and all, disease and all. Therefore, when we really accept ourselves, and have compassion, we treat ourselves better. That can look like setting boundaries, putting ourselves first, asking for help, eating a healthy diet, moving our bodies daily, prioritizing sleep, taking medication, and making better decisions about our health and well-being. All of this is an expression of self-love.
Having love for ourselves has rippling effects throughout the body, mind, and soul that are beyond measure. Viewing self-love as medicine is just one more tool in the toolbox of complementary protocols to manage autoimmune disease and chronic illness so we can thrive, not just survive.