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Emotions and Illness

by: David Harris, MFT

Emotions are a normal and essential part of the human condition. Our emotions can range over a wide spectrum, just a few of which are joy, sadness, empathy, depression, happiness, anxiety, stress, and the list is endless. Western medicine is coming to the realization that our emotions often play an integral role in the wellness or illness of our physical bodies.

The particular type of emotions to which I am referring are those that might be summarized as "stressful", which includes such things as depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and much more.

Studies have shown that in a large percentage of physical illnesses, stress has played a role. As most of us know acute stress historically has served a very useful purpose in lives of human beings. In our early beginnings, when the "tiger" or the "enemy" attacked us, a complex system of hormones were set into motion and the "fight or flight" reaction which resulted, was our adaptation for survival. Just some of the physiological responses to this emergency stimulus are an increase blood pressure, elevated blood sugar levels, a suppression of the immune system and much more. But when the stimulus of this kind of stress dissipates, so does the "fight or flight" response. Things return to normal in a very short time.

However, in our society today, chronic stress is the demon. Examples of causes of chronic stress would be frustration on the job, loss of control in one’s life, a bad marriage, fear of financial loss, etc. And unfortunately, this type of stress does not just go away. It can become the "physiological costume" that we wear most of the time. Just a few of the many manifestations that we might see today could be heart problems, gastric ulcers, headache, abdominal pain, hypertension, irritable bowel syndrome and cancer. Certainly there are many other factors involved in these illnesses, but chronic stress is at the very least, a frequent and all too often a contributing factor.

At times the stressful and negative emotions may not be so obvious, and be the result of old emotional injuries of which the patient may be unaware. These emotions may be buried deep in the body or psyche, but are no less detrimental to one’s physical health.

Here it is extremely important that the patient receive whatever is medically indicated, but also be treated for any underlying emotional factors which might have contributed to the condition being treated. At times some form of psychotherapy may be essential. This approach is called holistic, and is often referred to as a Mind Body approach.

Another and equally important aspect of the relationship of illness to emotions is the effect that physical illness can have on one’s mental state. Even a relatively minor illness, especially when prolonged, can induce a feeling helplessness. Sometimes when an illness cannot be diagnosed, the fear of the unknown can be overwhelming.

When one is seriously ill, there can be anger, a sense of loss of control. depression, fear and a multitude of other disabling emotional states.

Often times there are no shortcuts around what could be an emotional meltdown. But what is most important, in the face of all that might be coming down on a person, is to not lose hope. Maintaining hope has been shown to be physiologically and psychologically important to recovery.

In summary, we are not "just a physical body". We are actually a Mind, Body and Spirit. This wholeness of who we are must be kept in mind at all times, whether by a health care practitioner or ourselves whenever dealing with a serious illness of any type.

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