Question:

How I'm feeling emotionally seems to have an effect on how I feel physically. It seems I catch colds and flu, or my arthritis flares up when I'm anxious and can't sleep. And it happens the other way around. If I’m sick, or in pain, I don't feel very stable emotionally. I have a short fuse, or I can feel depressed. What is happening?

 

Answer:

You are raising a centuries-old question about the body-mind relationship. More than 2,000 years ago, the Greeks understood intuitively the interconnection between emotion and health. The Greek god of healing, Asclepius, symbolized all that was needed for body and mind to be in balance – healthy diet, pure water, exercise, and support of friends and family. Also essential were calming activities of sleep, music, and meditation. Our need for internal balance in order to feel well emotionally and physically hasn't changed.

What are emotions? This is a complicated question with no clear cut answers. Emotions are thought about in many different ways by those who study them. Some focus on one part of emotion, like feelings or bodily responses. Others describe emotions as having many components. Some see emotions as states, and others as processes covering the whole experience from appraisal to response. For example, joy might be described as a particular feeling, or the whole process from the appraisal of a particular event to having a joyful response. Emotions are always about something. We are angry about a situation, someone else's behaviour, or our own. We are afraid of the dark alley behind the house, the bridge we have to drive over every morning, or someone’s aggression. Emotions can be reactions to something we imagine. An imagined threat to a relationship can create jealousy. Anticipation of a negative outcome that may not happen can cause panic. Real or imagined, the object of emotion can create powerful physical responses.

What are these responses, and how do they affect health? What is the relationship between emotions and immunity? Our response to stressors depends on whether we appraise the stressor as a threat or not, and this is quickly assessed based on our past experiences and resilience, our ability to bounce back. Individuals may weather the same stressor very differently and will experience different physical effects. If we feel able to control or manage a stressor – when we can quickly assess what is happening, break it down into manageable parts then deal with each part in order of urgency – we are regulating the hormone response and minimizing negative effects on our immunity.

Our body's immune system is a two-way conversation between the brain and the complex system designed to keep us healthy. Cytokines, made by immune cells, can travel through the bloodstream or signal nerves to activate different parts of the brain. Once activated by the cytokines, the hypothalamus (which links the nervous system to hormones) begins to secrete the brain's stress hormone CRH (corticotrophin-releasing hormone), which initiates the cascade of hormones that is the stress response and is designed to keep you in an alert and responsive state. The result of this response is production of cortisol by the adrenal glands. Besides shutting down the brain's stress response, cortisol turns down the ability of immune cells to perpetuate inflammation (which can aggravate arthritic joints for instance) and produce more cytokines. In this way, the stress response keeps the immune system in check. Cytokines are responsible for how you can feel when you are sick -- the grogginess, sleepiness, not wanting to move, loss of appetite, loss of will and strength, sadness, and the fever. If the stress is chronic (and this can include busy-ness from which there is rarely a break or rest period throughout the day), the body is continuously producing stress hormones which can eventually break down the immune system and leave us vulnerable to more serious disease.

Just as the Greeks prescribed, our emotional and physical well being requires balanced nutrients, some regular exercise and short periods of calm and rest to counter the pressures and demands of daily life and relationships. We need to find ways to give ourselves and others positive emotional experiences by working toward personal goals, cultivating friendships, sorting out family frictions as best we can. The relationship between body, brain and mind is meant to be both dynamic and regulated.

 

Bea Donald, M.A., R.C.C., B.C.A.M.F.T., is a Program Manager and Clinical Supervisor of the Family Counselling / Employee Assistance Program at Family Services of the North Shore. Questions? Write This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 604-988-5281.