How Your Thoughts & Emotions Affect Your Body

How Your Thoughts & Emotions Affect Your Body

  • Ed and Deb Shapiro

Ed remembers having an upset stomach when he was a child and his grandmother asking him if he was having a problem at school. What she knew instinctively we are at last beginning to prove scientifically: that there is an intimate and dynamic relationship between what is going on with our feelings and thoughts, and what happens in the body. A Time Magazine special showed that happiness, hopefulness, optimism and contentment, “Appear to reduce the risk or limit the severity of cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, diabetes, hypertension, colds and upper-respiratory infections; while depression—the extreme opposite of happiness—can worsen heart disease, diabetes and a host of other illnesses.”

In Woody Allen’s movie, Annie Hall, Diane Keaton is breaking up with Woody and wants to know why he isn’t angry. “I don’t get angry,” Allen replies, “I grow a tumor instead.”

However, Deb recently had a burst appendix and she is immensely grateful for the medical intervention that saved her life. So we know that illness is very real, that accidents happen, and how medicine can help. We aren’t trying to convince anyone that the sole reason for illness is in our mind. Nor are we saying that by understanding how the mind and body work together that we’ll be able to miraculously cure ourselves.

What we believe is that the role of the mind and emotions in our state of health is a vital one and that by understanding this relationship we can claim a greater role in our own well being. It is only a part of the overall picture, but it is the part that is invariably overlooked.

If we separate an organism into its component parts it can’t function. Each piece has a role to play, even if it is a very small role, so if only one part is malfunctioning it will affect the whole. Recently our car broke down. After it was fixed, we were told that it had been just one small wire that had caused the problem yet the engine could not function properly without it. In the same way, if we ignore the role our feelings and thoughts play we are ignoring one of the most important parts that make up our whole being. And it may be the one that most needs to get fixed.

Generally speaking, we tend to think of our bodies and minds as separate systems and believe they function, for the most part, independently. Yet instinctively we know that is not the whole story. For instance, can you remember the last time you had an interview for a job? Or went on a first date with someone you were really trying to impress? In either case, no doubt you wanted to appear calm and collected but at the same time you were feeling self-conscious and nervous. Can you recall how your body felt? Self-consciousness will tighten your buttock muscles (so you are literally sitting on your tension), you will sweat more than usual, may feel slightly nauseous, and you will probably fluff your words, just when you want to appear suave and confident.

In other words, our emotions affect us physically. It might be easy to understand that a scary thought gets our heart beating faster, but it can be harder to realize that loneliness, sadness or depression can also affect us physically, and when it comes to more complex emotions or illnesses few of us consider our emotions to have any relevance.

Understanding the bodymind relationship won’t necessarily cure all our physical difficulties but by learning the language of symptoms and illness we can discover what is being repressed or ignored in our psyche and emotions, and how this is influencing our well-being. From this vantage point we can discover that there is an extraordinarily intimate two-way communication going on between our body and mind that affects both our physical state and our mental and emotional health. Self-reflection and meditation are ways that help us deepen this understanding.

Can you see a link between the mind and the body?