When I think about how emotions and mental states can affect physical health, I’m always reminded of an old, famous movie starring Hollywood icons Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. The movie is called Suddenly Last Summer and it’s all about how emotional duress can bring on illness – both mental and physical. To sum it up, Elizabeth Taylor is a young woman who’s witnessed the gruesome death of her favorite cousin by a group of “wild boys” while vacationing in Spain. As a result she starts to suffer mental and physical deterioration in her health. It’s not until a psychiatrist (Montgomery Clift) is able to make her remember the terrible event and deal with it that her health and sanity start to return.
The story illustrates what current researchers have come to believe – the mind is much more powerful in causing ill health – and healing it – than previously thought. That’s what I’d like to talk to you about – how to take control of your emotions to ensure your good health.
How Volatile Emotions Can Sabotage Your Health
You may think of your mind and body as two separate entities that don’t have much interaction with each other. Yet, think of the last time you got really mad, or very emotionally upset, about something. You may have noticed that your heart started beating faster, your breathing became more labored, or you might have gotten an immediate headache, stomach cramps, or chest pains.
What happened is that your mind first perceived something that caused a negative response. Secondarily your body followed the message your mind sent it – prepare to fight. Your fight or flight responses came into play and adrenaline started pumping through your blood. All your major physical systems – heart, lungs, and muscles – started gearing up to fight. These are biophysical, chemical responses that humans have had since our earliest days that helped us survive predator attacks. Yet, in our modern world our “predators” are more like finances, work, or relationship problems, rather than wild animals. They are chronic, ongoing stressors that can take a toll on your health by constantly keeping your mind in an angry, depressed, or anxious state. This results in ratcheting up your stress hormone cortisol.
Cortisol has its place in maintaining your mental and physical equilibrium. But, too much cortisol, on a chronic basis can suppress DHEA – a powerful immune system protector and precursor to your male and female hormones. Low estrogen in women and low testosterone levels in men can open the door for heart disease, prostate cancer, and other conditions to walk in. Too high cortisol creates a known deadly situation in your body – inflammation – research-proven to be the key to developing poor health. Diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, many others – even cancer – have their roots in chronic inflammation.
The upshot is – your body’s health follows the state, and health, of your mind and its thoughts. Researchers have found that negative emotions like chronic anger (“chip on the shoulder” personality), morbid and prolonged grief, anxiety, chronic discontentment, guilt, suspicion, remorse all help fuel the biochemical responses (high cortisol – inflammation) that lead to disintegration of your health. You’ve likely heard of people dying from a “broken heart” – that’s not just a saying. Chronic, morbid, grief can occur after the death of a loved one. When social support is poor, social isolation and profound depression may lead to illness.
On the other hand, positive emotions like hope, faith, love, courage, compassion, sympathy promote good health and longevity. It’s likely why people who have strong faiths, optimistic “happy-go-lucky” personalities with good social relationships are healthier and live longer. A 2008 study out of Ben Gurion Hospital in Israel revealed that positive emotions like optimism and happiness can be powerful preventative mechanisms against disease. Those emotions can also help heal as well.
As a doctor, I’ve seen many patients with poor health conditions turn their physical conditions around by adopting positive mindsets. In turn, a positive outlook causes them to develop a plan of positive actions that puts their health back on the road to recovery. I’ve found that people who carry toxic emotions around with them also engage in toxic behaviors – too much alcohol, smoking, little exercise (sitting around worrying), dangerous lifestyles, carrying toxic emotions around, not realizing that their behaviors are derailing their health.
How Can You Banish Toxic Emotions?
It’s simple really. You can let go of all those toxic emotions by doing the following:
1. Express yourself. Trying to constantly keep the peace by bottling up resentment, anger, disappointment, whatever is causing your thoughts and emotions to boil will wind up hurting your health. Calmly express your feelings to the people involved in the issue. They may be unaware that you’re feeling this way and hopefully will help resolve the situation.
2. Meditate. You might think you don’t have enough time, but meditation need only take 10 minutes out of your day to be effective. It involves simply clearing your mind of all bothering thoughts and focusing on something that brings you peace. It’s been proven that clearing your mind in this way helps decrease cortisol levels and dampen inflammation. Develop a key word or words that you associate with peace – like ocean, or whale calls, rain, etc. Think of these key words whenever you start to feel out of control or negative thoughts creeping in. The words can help bring back the feelings you associate with them – peace and well being.
3. Get Help. Getting an objective, professional opinion can help you learn how to deal with a stressful situation successfully. Friends may also be of help, but sometimes their opinions are more biased. However, do stay connected to your friends and social network while you’re working through problems. Research out of Carnegie Mellon University has shown that people who were socially disconnected were 4.2 times more likely to catch a cold when exposed to a virus than those who had fulfilling social relations.
4. Stay Positive. With negative issues going on in your life, it may be hard to keep a positive mindset. Reminding yourself that you can work this out, you can solve this problem, you can surpass it – positive “self-talk”, will help you not only seek ways to solve the issues but will also decrease your stress level and dial down cortisol hormones.
When it comes to your health much of it is within your control. You can choose the diet you eat, the amount of exercise you do, whether you engage in toxic behaviors, and whether you stay positive about your life. Research studies prove more and more that negative thoughts precede negative behaviors and both spell trouble for your health. I think the key word is action – take the first step towards solving those problems in your life that cause you stress. Adopting a clear plan of action how to do so will go a long way in allowing you to feel peaceful and optimistic in your outlook on life and to saving your health.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Natural Health News
Are Toxic Emotions Making You Sick? http://phase3ministries.com/wordpress/are-toxic-emotions-making-you-sick
How Your Emotions Affect Your Health and Immune System, http://www.oprah.com/health/How-Your-Emotions-Affect-Your-Health-and-Immune-System
photo credit: findtheneedle.co.uk