alive logo

The Emotional Piece of the Health Puzzle


This second excerpt from the revised Encyclopedia of Natural Healing looks at the science of emotional health. As you'll see, what we feel emotionally affects how we feel physically in some surprising and dramatic ways.

This second excerpt from the revised Encyclopedia of Natural Healing looks at the science of emotional health. As you'll see, what we feel emotionally affects how we feel physically in some surprising and dramatic ways.

Early civilizations recognized the centrality of emotions in human life. The biblical Book of Proverbs warns of falling prey to anger and jealousy, while Greek and Latin philosophers wrote essays full of prescriptions for controlling one's emotions.

But it was only in the 20th century that researchers began to grapple with the complex underpinnings of emotions. In 1944, neuroscientist V.H. Mottram became the first to explain how physical differences in human brains accounted for much of individuals' unique personalities. This was followed by the discovery that traumatic experiences could fundamentally change a person's mental and physical functioning, a condition that became known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Another breakthrough came in 1974. Through experiments with laboratory rats, psychologist Robert Ader of the University of Rochester determined that the nervous system and the immune system were in constant interaction via biochemical messengers. Until then, scientists had always believed that the two systems operated independently.

Armed with this new information, researchers began examining the effect of emotions upon lymphocytes, the antibody-producing white blood cells that protect the body from viral and bacterial invasion. One study of men whose wives had terminal breast cancer recorded "a highly significant" drop in their lymphocyte levels once they became widowers. Another study tracking dental students found that their secretion of the antibody immunoglobin A plummeted during the stress of exam time.

A new wave of researchers followed. Some, like neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, explored how the brain processed emotions. Others, like psychologist Barbara Betz, devised classification systems based on emotional tendencies. Betz's 1979 study found that people who tended to be loving, optimistic and happy had longer life expectancies than those who tended to be angry, pessimistic and depressed.

In the mid-1980s, psychologist Reuven Bar-On developed an "emotional quotient" as a counterpart to the standard intelligence quotient (IQ). Building on his work, psychology professors Peter Salovey and John Mayer coined the phrase "emotional intelligence" to describe a set of competencies enabling people to understand their emotions, as well as those of the people around them, and to use that information to guide their thought processes and behaviours.

Five years later, in 1995, Daniel Goleman turned the concept into a cultural phenomenon with his international best-seller Emotional Intelligence (Bantam Books). The intense interest generated by Goleman and other popular authors has given new impetus to the study of emotional health at the start of the 21st century.

Emotions And Physiology

In the human brain, learning, memory and emotions are housed in the limbic system surrounding the brainstem. Within the limbic system, emotional impulses originate in the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure that triggers the physiological reactions associated with emotions.

A network of neural pathways connects the amygdala to the neocortex, the "thinking brain," allowing us to reflect on our feelings and to think before acting. In times of perceived crisis, however, those pathways are bypassed and impulse overrides reason.

Intuitive "gut feelings," or somatic markers, develop simultaneously in the limbic system and the body. These steer us toward one course of action or another, whether it be avoiding danger or seizing opportunity.

Each emotion triggers a distinct physiological reaction, the body's program for dealing with different situations. Sadness slows down the body's metabolism and causes us to cry. Research has substantiated the age-old theory that crying releases harmful toxins by showing that tears of sadness have a different chemical composition than tears of joy or those caused by irritants. Cardiologists have also found that crying can reduce stress.

Anger floods the brain with catecholamines hormones that prime the body for action and stimulates the nervous system, putting it on a general state of alert. This explains why someone who is already in a foul mood will remain edgy and more easily aroused to anger than someone who is not.

Stress and anxiety set off the nervous system's "flight-or-fight" response, a chain of physiological events in which the blood pressure rises and muscles contract. In chronic cases, these reactions can lead to headaches, cramps and insomnia, as well as to more serious ailments, such as heart disease, colitis and gastrointestinal disorders. According to the American Medical Association, stress contributes to 75 percent of all cases of illness in the United States.

People can also engage in certain behaviours to induce the release of neurotransmitters chemicals that send messages within the brain to regulate mental and bodily functions. Such behaviours often serve as false substitutes for true emotional wellness. Moreover, like most addictions, their potency gradually wears off, forcing those who resort to them to seek ever-greater levels of stimulation.

Ultimately, it is less the physiological effects of emotions than how we deal with them that affects our overall health. A decade-long study tracked both men and women who had been diagnosed with depression but appeared free from cardiac problems. Forty-six percent of the men eventually died from heart disease, compared to only 16 percent of the women. The researchers theorized that the male tendency to bury one's feelings and to avoid examining or expressing them might have led to the difference in mortality rates.

Mood swings rapid fluctuation from one emotion to another can also wreak havoc on the body. A 1999 study found that people prone to moodiness were four times more likely to develop ischemia, a condition that reduces the flow of blood to the heart, than those whose emotional highs and lows tended to stay stable.



alive's August 2021 Challenge: Try a New Therapy

alive's August 2021 Challenge: Try a New Therapy

Have you tried these?

alive Editorial

alive Editorial