Boosting the Immune System: An Added Benefit of Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy and other psychosocial interventions can improve the function of a person’s immune system, according to a meta-analysis published in JAMA Psychiatry in June. Immune system strength may be particularly important in helping minimize the potential impact of coronavirus.

Stressful events can affect how a person’s immune system functions. Substantial previous research has shown that experiencing chronic stress can suppress protective immune responses and can promote harmful ones, such as inflammations. For example, research has found that an impaired immune system can contribute to slower wound healing, reduced response to vaccines, and progression of infectious diseases. Psychological interventions that reduce stress may help protect the immune system.

In the JAMA study looking at the potential effects of psychotherapy, the researchers examined 56 randomized controlled trials involving more than 4,000 participants. They studied eight different psychosocial interventions, including behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), CBT plus additive treatment or mode of delivery that augmented the CBT, bereavement or supportive therapy, multiple or combined interventions, other psychotherapy, and psychoeducation. They looked at seven different immune function measures.

The study found that being randomly assigned to a psychosocial intervention condition versus a control condition was associated with a 15% improvement in beneficial immune system function and an 18% decrease in harmful immune system function over time. The immune-related benefits continued for at least six months following treatment and were consistent regardless of age or gender or length of the psychosocial treatment. These associations were most consistent for CBT and for multiple or combined treatments.

The authors concluded that “psychosocial interventions are reliably associated with enhanced immune system function and may therefore represent a viable strategy for improving immune-related health.”

Similarly, a meta-analysis last year found that stress-reducing psychological interventions can be effective in improving immunity. The interventions included mindfulness, meditation, counseling, psychoeducation, and others. The authors suggest that “psychological interventions can possibly supplement, or at least partially replace, current drug treatments in various somatic conditions to reduce side effects.”

While many people may benefit from mindfulness, meditation or other relaxation techniques in these stressful times, if the stress or mental health concerns are overwhelming it may be beneficial to seek the care of a professional. In a recent editorial in the American Journal of Psychotherapy, Holly Swartz, M.D., with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine notes that psychotherapy can play an important role in helping individuals address the stressors related to isolation, social distancing, job loss, threat of illness, grief, and other mental health issues related to the pandemic.


© American Psychiatric Association

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