Emotion And Illness – A Definite Link

The body affects the mind, affects the feelings. And vice versa. Think about that for a minute. The body and how it physically feels and the health ‘behaviour’, can affect the thinking of the mind.

Think of the last time you had a really sore knee or shoulder (or something) and remember the thinking that went on – will I ever feel better? Will this get worse? My day is going really badly. Then think of how the mind can affect your feelings – the classic bad hair day where things go from bad to worse. Alternatively think of how waking up with an unexplainable feeling of anticipation (feeling) can influence your thoughts to that of curiosity and optimism and put a spring in your step. We are a system. A system of being human.

I was looking at a study done in 2010 on women with fibromyalgia and the effect of the emotion of anger on the symptoms. ‘Fibromyalgia is characterised by an amplified pain response to various physical stimuli. Through biological and behavioural mechanisms, patients with fibromyalgia may also show an increase of pain in response to emotions. Anger, and how it is regulated, may be particularly important in chronic pain’.

In this study researchers studied 333 women with fibromyalgia to see whether anger during everyday life amplifies pain and whether general and situational anger inhibition and anger expression modulated the anger-pain link.

What struck me was that this study was about the emotional impact on the physical symptom. Fantastic! And to save you reading the study here is the conclusion:

 

‘Our study suggests that anger and a general tendency to inhibit anger predicts heightened pain in the everyday life of female patients with fibromyalgia. Psychological intervention could focus on healthy anger expression to try to mitigate the symptoms of fibromyalgia’.

 

In other words heightened negative emotion makes the symptom worse. Working on how emotion is experienced or expressed is valuable in the management of painful symptoms.

 

Can you think of when a child is tired. It has been a big day full of excitement, people, food and activity. Then the child ‘hits the wall’. Suddenly nothing goes right, she falls over and it hurts more, she is crying and doesn’t know where to put her body. A little piece of skin around her nail is suddenly painful, and she is miserable. We attribute this behaviour to her being tired and ‘it’s been a big day’. The answer is some TLC, empathy and bed. She has been overstimulated and her nervous system is in a crisis.

When we are in pain, our physical system and nervous system is on high alert. Being in this state is energy sapping and it doesn’t take much to tip us over into even more pain and energy drain.

We are a beautiful and complex system – that of being human. This system involves the mental, emotional and physical aspects of us and at any stage one of those can impact and alter the other in a positive or negative way. The fact that emotion and the bottling up of it is to be recognised as a contributory factor to the physical health that we enjoy (or don’t enjoy) is a bit slow on the uptake. But boy oh boy is it powerful in influencing wellness. (We are also in a culture where emotion is starting to be recognised as being really important. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is one of the most wanted skill for 2020 according to a LinkedIn survey).

 

Straight out suppression of emotion creates an energy in our body. That energy is transferred to our cells and actually starts to rewire out neurons and cells in a way that is not usually that physically noticeable initially but after a while makes it’s presence felt in the form of a physical symptom. You could say in a non-scientific way, that the emotional body is impacted first and then that spills over into the physical body – this is where the physical symptoms show up. It sure gets our attention then.

We have all had that ‘Right. I’ve had enough’ moment when the final straw breaks the camels back. I sure have had my share of yelling when I’ve been angry. Anger usually turns up when something important to us, a value, is transgressed. Yet anger often has been hanging around since we were little. Old hurts, old fury, outrage, indignation and hatred have been pushed down under the surface from when we were small and not in a position to express it. We have grown up with this emotion, simmering away, yet it becomes an unconscious presence. We become completely unaware of it. Like an iceberg though, it is there under the surface and it is causing a slow brew of energy and this is creating a long and slow physical change. Until one day something has to give. We get a symptom, a pain and we sure notice that.

A nervous system that is tired or worn out is usually a nervous system that has been trying to operate like a car with the foot on the accelerator and revving the engine. Keep that up and eventually it will collapse or blow up. The car must rest and cool down. Many chronic illnesses are found to be influenced by a worn out nervous system and stuffed down emotion.

When we are stressed, the whole body is on high alert. Stress is a response to a perception of threat. Back in the day stress was useful to let you run for your life and we used those stress hormones, chemicals and resulting response for when it was vital. Then we rested. The problem is that we are constantly stressed these days. On edge, in a hurry, upset at someone, holding in our emotion, needing to be the nice person, not feeling empowered to assert our boundaries. During stress our heart pumps faster, blood pressure is raised, energy goes to the big muscles (used for running and breathing), immunity and digestion is put on hold and the pain threshold drops. We don’t rest. The organs and tissues become more vulnerable to inflammation and harm during or after periods perceived as threatening. The bar has been raised for when we actually notice this stress and that is a concern. The energy of a traumatic event can stay stuck within the body for years influencing the whole nervous and physical system.

This is not new news though. A study was done in 1967 50 young adults newly diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis were followed over five years, looking at the effect of their psychosocial stress. Those who were judged to be significantly stressed at the point of diagnosis suffered worse tissue damage at the end of the 5 years. Then in 1997 a study showed that relationship stress was associated with increases in joint inflammation.

 

Swallowing that emotion, stuffing it down puts our physical body under more stress.

 

Our nervous system involves the sympathetic (stress) system and the parasympathetic (peace) system. Recent science in the field of the polyvagal theory (Stephen Porges) has shown how important and incredibly influential our vagal nerve is. Add to that the work done by HeartMath and we have been shown the incredible positive influence we can have on our own body in both the area of physicality and emotions. (Which of course impacts our thinking and mental capabilities).

 

By using a variety of techniques that activate the vagal nerve (the great nerve that wanders through our body, chatting to our organs and brain) we can actually create a body that is more calm. My favourite technique is in using the breath – an even breath for a count of 6 on the in breath (up the curve) and 6 on the out breath (down the curve). At the same time, the ball is floated smoothly along the curve by the breath. This is called Balanced Breathing. This has been shown to influence the heart to take a tiny extra moment before jumping to a sympathetic (stressed) state and that is the difference between a response and a reaction. That controlled breathing actually teaches the heart, via the diaphragm and the vagal nerve to increase it’s window of tolerance. (I can attest to the effectiveness of this exercise – when I do this breathing every day, I am less inclined to jump to an emotional reaction. I remain calm yet alert. When I drop the practise, I am a little more emotionally reactive). (!)

We are slowly coming to understand that the body has a memory. There are practises that help the release of anger, trauma and other emotions. Trauma Release Exercise is a wonderful experience of shaking out the energy that has been pent up and held in the muscles. The fantastic aspect of this is that it is context free. There is no knowing what the ‘shake’ is about, it is simply fascinating to observe with a curious mind and know that it is ‘better out than in’. The work of Bessel Van der Kolk (The Body Keeps The Score) and Peter Levine is really interesting and they certainly put forward compelling reasons for working with the body and the emotions as part of the bodymind system that all lead to health and wellness.

Many times when a client is wanting coaching for a health issue, anger is uncovered, surprising that client who often comments that ‘it is not about their illness is it’. Anger at a parent, a sibling, a culture or belief or even anger at the self. After exploring this, it is usually agreed that forgiveness will allow ‘that hot coal’ to be put down. Forgiveness involves a process that involves the head (it is a logical thing to do), the heart (it is important) and the gut (to allow the client to actually let go and move on). I have created a series of videos about Forgiveness and this is based on the work of Grant Soosalu and mBraining.

So the trick is to do the anger release in a way that is not hurtful. And to do that, we must learn our boundaries. To develop a voice that is more empowered and less reactive, being aligned with the heart which is all about preserving relationships as well as those emotions. Vent to someone you trust, write a letter, kick a ball or get some exercise to discharge the pent up energy. Coaching will speed up the whole process – often we are not aware of that which we have been constantly living with.

 

But referring back to the study at the top of the article, what struck me was that the average age of the women in that study was 47 years. So what else goes on when a woman is around that age? That’s right. Menopause. Perimenopause usually, where the hormones, oestrogen and progesterone fluctuate and start to decline. During this time a woman goes through an enormous change in her physical body and may notice a whole lot of other things going on, amongst them – hot flushes, aches and pains, emotional geysers, migraines, depression, fatigue and loss of drive, anxiety, irritability and bowel issues. Could it be that the nervous system is at a point of break as well? That it has finally had enough and this coincides with the swinging hormone production and change in a woman’s life? Could it be, that instead of blaming the hormones, we could be looking at our life and how we ‘do’ that up until now. Sure the hormones may have preempted this observation but it is not called the ‘change of life’ for nothing. It is a time for change.

Maybe considering that the body has the information that we are needing to be well can create a faster transformational path to that wellness. Listening and exploring without blaming and silencing. Treating our own body like that little child who is tired and behaving in a way that she needs to, to be listened to, to be cared for.

If you don’t feel that you are working with your body effectively, if you think there is more to health than what you are achieving, if you think there is something missing in order to be well, if you are open minded and curious as to how to live well in your lifetime, get in touch. If you think that emotions could very well have something to do with your health, that your mental attitude to health can impact your physical health, yet are not sure what is holding you back, get in touch and we will look at the whole of you and transform your experience of wellness.

 

Emotional health = mental health = physical health.

 

Paula Ralph is a Women’s health and surgery coach. She combines her pharmacist background with neuroscience, human behaviour and mindbody techniques to bring health back to her clients. www.paularalph.com

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