The Immune Power Personality: 7 Traits You Can Develop to Stay Healthy

"Before long, medical researchers may discover that the human brain has a natural drive to sustain the life process and to potentiate the entire body in the fight against pain and disease. When that knowledge is developed, the art and practice of medicine will ascend to a new and higher plateau."
     -- Norman Cousins

The 1990's have seen the dawning of a new model for promoting health and preventing disease. This model accepts that genes, environmental pollutants, disease agents, and diet are all factors in the genesis of illness. But it also accepts the role of the mind, both in illness and in health. As the mind-body field blossoms, we are learning that psychological factors influence the immune system, the body's network of defense and healing. Thus, the mind can contribute to our risk and our recovery from almost any disease.

Discoveries by today's mind-body scientists are compelling us to replace outmoded ideas about stress and health. Stress has been a buzzword since the 1960's, when our culture began disseminating the notion that external pressures and upsetting events are key psychological factors in illness. Recent investigations have altered that view. They reveal that stress is an inevitable and sometimes even positive force in our lives. The pivotal psychological factor in illness is not stress, but rather how we cope with stress. And how we cope depends, in large part, on our personalities.

A small band of scientists on the cutting edge of mind-body research has identified personality traits that enable us to cope effectively with the emotional wear and tear of daily existence. These traits represent facets of our psychological makeup that protect us from internal distress caused by external stress. By buffering us from the harmful effects of stress, healthy traits keep us strong in mind and body. Over the past ten years, I have written exclusively about the burgeoning fields of mind-body science and medicine. In the course of my investigations, I have identified a group of seven researchers, each of whom has uncovered a particular personality trait associated with psychological and physical well-being. Since each trait has been directly or indirectly linked to a vigorous immune system, I call them Immune Power traits. This book is about Immune Power traits, the research that has uncovered them, and the strategies each one of us can employ to become an Immune Power Personality. These strategies offer new hope that our own psychological resources can be activated to prevent and to heal diseases affecting every organ and system of the body.

What is an Immune Power Personality? The research I have explored suggests an individual who is able to find joy and meaning, even health, when life offers up its most difficult challenges. The Immune Power Personality handles stressful events not with denial, but with acceptance, flexibility, and a willingness to learn and grow. These characteristics prevent the Immune Power Personality from breaking down emotionally and physically in the midst of life crises. Psychologists have long documented the role of healthy traits in maintaining a healthy state of mind. Now mind-body scientists are demonstrating the role of healthy traits in maintaining a healthy state of body.

In each chapter of The Immune Power Personality, I follow the searches of one investigator who has defined and studied one Immune Power trait. Here are the traits and the researchers who identified them:

1. The ACE Factor: Attention, Connection, Expression: University of Arizona psychologist Gary E. Schwartz, Ph.D. has shown that people who are tuned to mind- body signals of discomfort, pain, fatigue, distress, sadness, anger, and pleasure cope better psychologically, have a better immune profile, and a healthier cardiovascular system.

2. The Capacity to Confide: James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., a psychologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, has demonstrated that individuals who confide their secrets, traumas, and feelings to themselves and others, have livelier immune responses, healthier psychological profiles, and far fewer incidences of illness.

3. Hardiness: Commitment, Control, and Challenge: Suzanne Ouellette, Ph.D. a psychologist at the City University of New York, originated the concept of personality hardiness. Hardiness includes the "three C's": A sense of control over one's quality-of- life, health, and social conditions; a strong commitment to one's work, creative activities, or relationships; and a view of stress as a challenge rather than a threat. People who exhibit the three C's suffer far fewer chronic illnesses and symptoms that those who don't. Other investigators have found that hardy individuals have stronger immune systems.

4. Assertiveness: George F. Solomon, M.D., an early pioneer of psychoneuroimmunology, conducted the earliest studies on personality and immunity. He has shown that people who assert their needs and feelings have stronger, more balanced immune responses. They more readily resist and overcome a range of diseases associated with dysfunctional immunity--from rheumatoid arthritis to AIDS. Solomon has found immune-power connections to other traits as well, including the ability to find meaning in stressful life circumstances.

5. Affiliative Trust: The Motive of Unconditional Love: A world-renowed motivational psychologist, David McClelland, Ph.D. of Boston University, has discovered that individuals who are strongly motivated to form relationships with others based on unconditional love--rather than frustrated power--have more vigorous immune systems and reduced incidence of illness.

6. Healthy Helping: While heading the Institute for the Advancement of Health, investigator Alan Luks conducted a large survey showing that people committed to helping others get a "helper's high" that is not only mental and spiritual, it is physical as well. These individuals, displaying the personality trait of altruism, suffer fewer illnesses than others who are not similarly motivated or engaged. Luks has become a one-man clearinghouse for the research of scientists and psychologists who have verified findings from his own survey.

7. Self-Complexity: The Healthy Hydra: Patricia Linville, a psychologist at Duke University, has demonstrated that people who explore many facets of their personalities- -called "self-aspects"--can better withstand stressful life circumstances. In her research, people with many "self-aspects" were less prone to stress, depression, physical symptoms, and bouts of flu and other illnesses in the wake of stressful life events. They also had higher self-esteem. Linville found that individuals high in "self-complexity" have strenghts to fall back on when one part of themselves is lost or wounded.

I have interviewed these investigators, studied their data, and spoken with many of their patients. In each case, there is a story to tell. They are stories of scientists on a path of discovery who overcame the biases of both traditional and alternative medical communities. They are also stories of new and penetrating visions of human functioning, and advances in the mind-body field that will change the face of medicine. Other scientists have investigated health-promoting personality traits, but these seven have emerged with the most sophisticated theories, substantial research findings, and practical approaches for self-development. With one exception, they are psychologists or psychiatrists who have conducted original studies published in leading scientific journals. (The only exception is Alan Luks, a non-scientist whose vision propelled him to conduct a large survey on the role of helping and altruism in health. Luks has collected hard data from other scientists confirming conclusions of his survey-- that people motivated by altruism experience better health.) Despite the fact that their findings have challenged the conventional wisdom of established medicine, the rigour of their scientific methods has been recognized. Indeed, many are viewed as pioneers in their respective fields.

Interestingly, the researchers themselves exhibited Immune Power traits, often the very ones they studied. They had to be assertive to survive professionally in an academic community that is skeptical about psychological factors in health. Their sense of commitment, control, and challenge in confronting academic and scientific roadblocks was unerring. They designed and advocated methods that empower people to benefit from their discoveries. Every one of them had a flinty sense of humor.


Why isn't stress reduction enough? Why do Immune Power traits represent a leap forward in mind-body medicine? The current--but increasingly outdated--model of mind and body teaches us that stress is bad, plain and simple. The public continues to be fed this old dogma in trivialized form: "Avoid stress in your life, stay positive, and you'll remain healthy." At times, it seems as though prescriptions for mind-body health can be reduced to Bobby McFerrin's made famous lyric: "Don't worry, be happy!"

The mind-body researchers whose work forms the heart of this book have abandoned this overly simple model. From both a scientific and practical perspective, they have concluded that mere stress reduction and having a "positive attitude" are insufficient guides to mind-body wellness. One of these scientists, Suzanne Ouellette, who originated of the concept of hardiness, scoured the literature on stress and turned up this finding: If you were to predict illness from a knowledge of stressful life events, you would only be right less than 15 percent of the time. Her work, and the work of the other scientists, demonstrates that how we respond to stress--emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally--is critical in determining whether stress will make us sick.

For instance, during hard economic times, it's unrealistic to think that we can remain hermetically sealed off from the uncertainties, the job insecurity, or the financial difficulties that have become part of our lives. Moreover, we weren't built to avoid stress. Could our prehistoric ancestors, whose survival depended on dangerous hunting forays into the wilderness, have stayed cloistered in their caves in the name of stress management? Certainly not. In the modern era we cannot sidestep the stress that accompanies our pursuit of financial stability and creative enrichment in our work; our quest for more gratifying relationships; and our search for meaning as we confront everyday problems and inevitable losses. Consider the Chinese symbol for "crisis," which combines two words: danger and opportunity. When confronted with personal upheaval, we face the danger of regression or collapse, but we are also presented with opportunities for growth. Immune Power trait research is defining forms of personal growth that promote mind-body health.

Henry Dreher is a health and medical writer specializing in complementary and mind-body medicine. He is the author of Your Defense Against Cancer and The Immune Power Personality, and coauthor of The Type C Connection: The Mind-Body Link to Cancer and Your Health; and Healing Mind, Healthy Woman. Mr. Dreher is a regular contributor to Advances: The Journal of Mind-Body Health, Natural Health, and numerous other periodicals.

From THE IMMUNE POWER PERSONALITY by Henry Dreher. Copyright @ Henry Dreher, 1995. Reprinted by arrangement with Dutton Signet, a division of Penguin Books USA, Inc.
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