Gabor Maté, MD
</P> We often speak of inflamed emotions to indicate a psychological state in which feelings are heightened to the point of being out of control.
The inflammation may be triggered not by external factors but by hidden emotional ones.
We often speak of inflamed emotions to indicate a psychological state in which feelings are heightened to the point of being out of control. Little do we realize that emotions can cause physical inflammation in a very direct sense, or that hidden beliefs can give rise to inflammatory disorders.
Inflammation is a process implicated in many diseases. This includes the inflammation of airways in asthma, the painfully inflamed joints of rheumatoid arthritis, the inflammatory skin reactions of eczema, and the inflamed bowel lining in ulcerative colitis (Crohn's disease). It may be surprising to learn, that inflammation is actually a healthy and necessary process. Problems arise only when it gets out of hand - when it escapes from the physiological checks and balances that normally keep it under control.
The cells that initiate inflammation belong to the body's immune apparatus, the system meant to attack and destroy harmful invaders such as toxins, virus particles, and bacteria. A common cause of inflammation is infection, when the body mounts a temporary inflammatory response to repel the infective agent. Inflammatory cells surround and isolate the perceived enemy and secrete substances that, almost literally, chew it up and dissolve it.
In many conditions, however, there is no external agent. The inflammation may be triggered not by external factors but by hidden emotional ones. Our intestinal tract, for example, is much more than an organ of digestion. It carries out a substantial immune function, serving as a major defence barrier. The gut has many inflammatory cells in its lining. It has been said that our intestine exists in a constant state of "controlled inflammation" - a state in which it is ready to bar and destroy unwelcome intruders while permitting nutrients and other essential particles to enter the organism. In colitis or Crohn's, the inflammation erupts beyond normal limits. And in both conditions, emotional influences have been shown to play a major role.
An American study conducted in 1955 looked at over seven hundred patients with ulcerative colitis. A high proportion had "obsessive-compulsive character traits, which included neatness, punctuality, [and] rigid attitudes towards morality and standards of behaviour." Similar personality traits have been noted in patients with Crohn's and in other inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
How can emotional traits trigger physical inflammation? Normally keeping inflammation in check are anti-inflammatory processes and chemicals that counter the activity of the inflammatory cells. A chief one is the hormone cortisol, secreted by the adrenal gland. Cortisol has many functions, a major one being to dampen the inflammatory response. In fact, in all inflammatory conditions, including asthma, eczema, colitis, and arthritis - cortisol-type medications are the mainstay of treatment. And what triggers cortisol release? Messages from the brain's hypothalamus, an organ intimately influenced by our emotional states. Stress is a powerful trigger for cortisol release. In many of the inflammatory conditions, chronic stress and excessive chronic cortisol secretion unbalance the body's ability to suppress inflammation. Normal levels of cortisol are no longer effective.
The emotional traits characteristic of people with inflammatory diseases may, in general, be summarized as too much internal control, too much suppression of healthy emotional expression. In turn, these highly stress-inducing traits are based on hidden beliefs: "If I'm angry, I'm not lovable," or, "I must be responsible for the whole world," or, "I must help others but never ask for help myself." One way to prevent inflammation, or to heal from it, is to learn to drop such beliefs each time we become conscious of them.