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Mind-body connection part 2 - That Healing Feeling!

The power of emotions in determining overall health

Following on from my last post about the placebo effect (and its evil twin, the nocebo), I wanted move on to explaining just how important our emotions and general disposition is in determining how healthy we are, and even our life expectancy.

It is generally accepted that when we’re tired, run down or suffering from the ever present stresses found in modern daily life we become more prone to illness. Part of the reason is that we tend to adopt habits that are not particularly good for us when things are getting too much. We may start binge eating, not exercising, drinking more alcohol, and of course smoking more frequently (in fact finding ourselves in a stressful situation is often a trigger to start something we’d long given up).

But apart from the things we do, just how else does our mental state or mood affect our health?

Well science, and in this case medical science has not been too comfortable talking about things like emotions and beliefs (or some other subjective values) till more recent times. If it can’t be measured in the lab then it’s all speculation as far as some scientists are concerned. It’s almost an area that scientists stay clear from researching as it carries the risk of being taken less serious. Still, over the last 30 years or so more and more evidence is coming to light which shows that we can actually put a value on these types of things and begin to draw conclusions as to what effects emotions have on health.

It’s been accepted for some time now that long periods of raised stress levels lead to all sorts of adverse health effects, among them possible heart attacks brought by the hardening of the arteries and high blood pressure. But how far does this type of this type of connection go?

Scientists like Candace Pert, Dawson Church, and Bruce Lipton as well as medical doctors like John E. Sarno, Lissa Rankin, and of course Deepak Chopra have all done much work in the field, establishing a strong link between mental state and health. In his book the Divided Mind, Sarno explains how many conditions, from Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) to back pain can be brought on by long term emotional pain such as hidden anger or other trauma. It’s the subconscious mind’s way of telling you that something is wrong. In fact he cites many cases where medical intervention to cure one problem has simply resulted in the problem appearing in another form (sometimes more serious). Sarno also claims that he has been able to deal with many medical conditions by first dealing with the emotional.

There is now a growing field dedicated to studying the effects of emotions on the body and how it affects our health and it’s called Psychoneuroimmunology (PSI).... try saying that with your mouth full.

So without going into too much depth about what damage negative emotions can lead to (for this I’ve suggested some links at the bottom of the page), I want to raise the question of how can we use this knowledge to help improve our health?

In most people’s minds the words ‘Healthy Lifestyle’ conjures up images of exercising regularly, eating lots of fruit and vegetables, and giving up addictions like smoking and excessive drinking. While these are undoubtedly extremely important, it may be missing a key element in the road to good health.

What is perhaps missing in this vision of a healthy lifestyle is the ongoing care and attention we need to pay to our emotional wellbeing. What’s most important is not that if we don’t, we’ll be doomed to living our life in a less than happy state (which seems a good enough reason by itself) but it’s the long term health implications it carries. Wearing our bodies down through constant stress and worry degrades our immune system and opens the door to illness, and some specialists such as Sarno go further to say that our bodies show its displeasure through the creation of physical pain, through what is known as Psychosomatic illness.

So it may seem reasonable to put yourself through Hell at work in the knowledge soon everything will be better financially, or you’ll be rewarded with a promotion. But perhaps understanding the implications of this lifestyle may add some more weight to the other side of the argument of aiming for a happier life in the now. Even if it’s not a realistic choice to change your working routine, perhaps there are still things you can do to take care of the emotional side of things.

We can start by taking responsibility for the way we feel...circumstances may not be totally in your control but how you respond to them are. Here are just five suggestions to focus on improving your emotional wellbeing and starting to enjoy life more.

1. Get enough sleep; sleep is a major contributor to our the saying goes ‘things will seem better in the morning’. If we’re constantly feeling tired and sleepy it is much more difficult to see the up side of things. So plan your sleep, and as someone who’s worked many years of shift patterns I know it’s not always easy, but we can only do our best.

2. Meditation and moments of quiet; especially in the morning, meditation is the easiest, quickest, cheapest route to a better mood. This also leads on to the next point...

3. Listen to your body; of course meditation aids in this, but remember to pay attention to how you are feeling throughout the day. The pace of modern life and all of the external stimuli has lead to many people becoming detached from their bodily sensations and what it’s trying to tell them. By listening to your body and responding accordingly it is possible to prevent many illnesses before they take hold.

4. Acceptance; Accept that some things you just don’t have control over, especially the past. The sooner you can move on from them, the sooner you’ll be able to look for better moments in the now.

5. Finally...Laugh more!!! Look for opportunities to enjoy life. Most of what we do is habitual, even thinking negatively, seeing the glass as half empty rather than half full. By remembering to look for the positive in a situation you may find that life takes on a different feel.

Interesting links;

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