During this pandemic we've seen a lot of media traffic promoting the use of masks, gloves and social distancing to help protect us from contracting the Coronavirus. What we haven't seen is practical advice about ways to boost our immune system to improve our body's ability to respond to viral threats. This post will address the greatest threat to our immune system and a simple wellness practice that is particularly effective to counteract that threat.
When digging into various sources written by experts, including medical doctors whose voices I have learned to trust, there is a common thread of thought around the one thing that is our greatest threat to a healthy immune system: stress and anxiety. Stress stimulates the amygdala, also called the "worry center" of the brain, which causes biological changes in the body, one of which is to shut down the immune system.
The problem is that we are all scurrying around, making sure we put on masks, gloves, and keep six foot apart. In the meantime, we are completely unaware that the mental and emotional stress we are putting ourselves through is compromising our ability to fight off the very viral threat that we are trying to protect ourselves from.
There is a loop effect that stress has on our being. It begins in the mind. We obsessively think about the things that we are worried about. This stimulates our emotions and causes anxiety, worry, and fear. These emotions then stimulate our "worry center" and cause changes in our body systems. We lose the state of homeostasis, or balance, in our bodies, which is the state in which it best thrives. We lose our inner harmony, our peace of spirit, our connection with God and the good things in our lives. This ultimately begins to affect our relationships as our emotions begin to come out sideways and we become irritable, accusatory, or intolerant of those around us who are not currently entertaining the same concerns and worries that we have become consumed by. This loops feeds itself over and over and each time around the loop increases the intensity of the effect on our holistic wellbeing.
The best way we can boost our immune system is to break this loop, to interrupt this cycle of cause and effect that most of us are experiencing right now. I find the most helpful way to do this is to start with the source, our thoughts, and refocus them towards more positive content. I have seen across both both wellness and Christian media a widespread appeal to do just this. The verses most often quoted by Christian leaders to encourage us in this process is from the Book of Philippians.
Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. Philippians 4:6-7 So how does this work practically? How do we shift our thoughts from worry to worship, from fear to faith? There is one simple practice we can do that will do more than just distract us from negative thoughts. In the medical field we call it visualization. And the beautiful thing? It is medically proven to boost our immune system! Here's a quote from one of my favorite wellness books.
Visualization is the act of imagining a reality through creating mental pictures. But it is not only visual; imagery includes every other sense as well: physical sensation, sound, smell, and taste. It’s an internalized experience that encompasses emotions, words, sounds, and even subtle bodily sensations. Visualization can assist you in developing positive emotions and expressing spiritual qualities, such as hope, courage, patience, perseverance, love, and others that can help you cope with, transcend, or recover from almost any illness.
Guided imagery can be used to affect the particular functions of the white blood cells that play a significant role in the immune system’s response to invading organisms. ~ Elaine Ferguson, MD, Superhealing, superhealing.net
So what does this look like? In Christian circles we practice this as a spiritual practice called "imaginative prayer." This type of prayer uses the power of visualization to focus on a picture of our world as it is meant to be, to see what it can become when God and people move in harmony to bring hope, love and renewal to the world. It is a practice that helps our interior vision tap into the greater vision that God has for our life, our family, our community.
In imaginative prayer, we play a scene over in our minds like we're watching a movie. We place ourselves in the scene, imagining the sights, sounds and physical sensations of that scene. Some people use stories from the Bible and place themselves in the story, taking on the role of one of the biblical characters and putting themselves in that person's shoes and then imagining what that character is saying, feeling, doing. So, let's try it! One of the biggest concerns that I've been hearing from people is the uneasiness they have about reentry, when the pandemic restrictions begin to lift and people venture out into the public again. I found an imaginative prayer exercise in the book, Imaginative Prayer by Jared Boyd. Although Jared's book is primarily designed for children, many people have found that his imaginative prayer exercises can be very helpful for those of us who are adults as well. I have made a few word changes to this exercise to shift it slightly to an older audience. Begin by settling yourself in a quiet place, sit comfortably, and take a couple deep breaths. Notice the thoughts you are experiencing around reentry - returning to work, church services, and general interaction with others in public spaces. What is it about being around people in public that causes you anxiety or stress? Notice where you feel that stress in your body. In what way does that stress disrupt the harmony of your inner being? If you were to gauge your level of inner peace on a scale of 1-10, where would you rate yourself when you are stepping out your front door to go someplace? Notice any feelings that you are experiencing towards others in these public spaces. Do those feelings change between those who wear masks and practice social distancing and those who do not? Bring to mind an incident in the past week of when you expressed these emotions to someone else and their response. Sit with this memory for a couple minutes. Now read and imagine this scene in your mind.
Imagine with me that you wake up in the morning and begin to get ready for your day. Picture climbing out of bed and heading to the place where you get dressed in the morning. You pick out your clothes and put them on. You straighten your dress or tuck in your shirt or roll up your jeans. Imagine brushing your hair.
Stand in front of the mirror. Take a good look at yourself. What do you see?
(pause 5-8 seconds)
Smile at yourself in the mirror. Take a deep breath and feel your chest rise and then fall. Take a good look at yourself. Look at the color in your eyes. You are God’s creation; you are his beautiful creation.
God’s glory, his presence, is in there. It’s in your eyes. It’s in your body. It’s in your voice when you sing. It’s in your heart as it pumps. It’s in your breath as you breathe.
The presence of God - his glory - is just beneath what you can see with your own eyes. Look closer in the mirror.
(pause 5 seconds)
Can you see God’s glory?
Imagine God’s presence - his glory - is like a light that shines from your face. Picture your face glowing with the light and the presence and the glory of God. Look in the mirror and see God’s presence.
(pause 5 seconds)
Imagine now that you pull a cloth from your pocket. This cloth is a veil. A veil is a cloth used to cover something up or to block light from coming in the window. A veil is like a window shade.
Take this piece of cloth and put it over your face. It’s a thin piece of cloth that you can see through, but the light that was coming from your face is now covered up.
Imagine now that you go about your day and you notice that others too have faces that are veiled. At the breakfast table your [family] are wearing veils.
What does it feel like to look at the people you love through a veil?
What does it feel like to know that there is a smile underneath the veil, but you can’t see it? That the very presence of God - God’s glory - is shining from their faces but you can’t see it? The veil is covering God’s presence.
Imagine going about your day, and everyone you meet has a veil covering their face. Every face is covered. Every voice sounds muffled. When people sing, it sounds so soft. When people dance, it’s as though they are barely moving. The veil is covering the presence and the glory of God.
And with your eyes closed, imagine now that Jesus enters into your day. Where are you when Jesus comes in? Are you at home? At [work]? At [a park]?
Jesus is the only one without a veil. He is the only face you can see. His voice is strong because it is not covered. His laughter is bright and loud because there is no veil. And when Jesus sings, his song is loud and beautiful.
Imagine Jesus invites you to follow him, and you begin walking toward a person near you. Imagine you are standing in front of someone you know. Your face is veiled, and their face is also veiled. You are facing one another, and Jesus invites you to share something with this other person. Who is the person across from you? Is it a parent? A brother? A sister? A friend? Picture someone you know. What is something you can share with that person? How can you be kind to them? How can you give love to them? Imagine Jesus is inviting you to share that specific love and kindness with that person.
(pause 5-8 seconds)
Now imagine doing it! Share and watch as your veil and the other person’s veil is lifted just enough for you to catch the presence of God shining out from where the veil was lifted. Look closely at the other person and see them for a brief moment without the veil covering their face. Look at the beauty of God in the face of Jesus. Look at the same beauty in the face of the person standing near you.
This is what love does to people. This is what grace and forgiveness do to people. This is what peace and reconciliation do to people. They lift the veil that covers the glory and the presence of God. They let the beauty of God’s creation shine through in everything. Jesus is the King with an unveiled face shining and reflecting the presence of God into the world.
(pause 5-8 seconds)
Imagine now that Jesus begins to sing. And as he sings his face shines more brightly.
Jesus is singing your favorite worship song or hymn. What is your favorite song you sing at church? Let that song come into your ears right now.
(pause 5 seconds)
And now Jesus invites you to sing. His face is shining with God’s presence.
And as you begin to sing with Jesus, as you begin to worship God with music and song, Jesus reaches down and removes your veil completely, and your face also shines and glows with the presence of God.
You are a worshiper.
Imagine that you laugh together with Jesus. You are filled with joy as you stand in front of Jesus experiencing the presence of God, singing, and dancing, and laughing as your face glows bright, and all the people around you are also singing and dancing and worshiping God, and their faces too are glowing bright with God’s presence.
(pause 8 seconds)
And now look in the mirror again. Imagine looking in the mirror again and seeing yourself. But this time you see something else. Your face is shining and reflecting the presence of God. Something about your face in the mirror looks more like Jesus’ presence than before.
You are a worshiper.
When we follow Jesus, we join the mission of God to bring his love into the world.
~ Jared Patrick Boyd, Imaginative Prayer, imaginativeprayer.com
Now take a moment to notice any shifts in your being. How have your thoughts been changed by this exercise? Re-gauge your level of inner peace on a scale of 1-10 and compare with what it was earlier. What effects have occurred in your body? Name the emotions you are feeling right now.
If you noticed a lessening of stress with this exercise, keep in mind that this is a practice that you can do anytime, anywhere. There are many scenes that you can imagine in your mind to settle your being. Put yourself into a scene that calms you, that centers your spirit and makes you feel grounded and safe. If you notice an increase of stress when you're out in public, take a couple deep breaths, close your eyes if you can, and see the scene that most effectively eases you, comforts you, and brings you peace.