For decades, I’ve understood that emotions and health were intricately linked. As I worked with patients with complicated health issues I noticed that women who were dealing with unrecognized emotions had a hard time achieving the level of wellness they were hoping for.
As I continued to observe and work with women to meet their health goals, it became clear to me that our emotions play a significant role in how we feel physically. Wanting to know more, I did quite a bit of reading and exploring the issue of emotions, stress, and health. I realized that sometimes modern medicine can only take a patient so far. Addressing the patient’s emotional needs becomes a critical piece of the picture.
A lot of women are surprised when I bring up the connection between emotional health and physical wellness. Others can describe in great detail the physical symptoms they have – including migraines, digestive difficulties, and even heart palpitations – when faced with overwhelming difficult emotions. This awareness is actually a good thing; those are the women who are most often ready to put in the emotional heavy lifting to get past buried trauma so they can feel their best.
Exploring how emotions impact health is especially pertinent right now, as many face precarious emotional health in the midst of a global pandemic, civil unrest, and rising economic challenges. Almost everyone I talk to tells me they’re overwhelmed and afraid of what’s to come.
The good news is that if we can understand the impact of emotions – good and bad – on our health, we can take steps to address the tough emotions and embrace the positive ones. When we do so, we give ourselves the best chance at alleviating the impact of chronic stress and protecting our physical health.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study
Throughout my years in practice, I’ve seen many women who have unknowingly held on to emotional experiences from their past and are now seeing the negative influence these emotions are having on their health. There’s solid research behind the notion that early experiences can lead to negative health outcomes.
A groundbreaking study was published in the 1990’s. Known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, this research demonstrated that adults who had traumatic experiences in childhood were much more likely to suffer from disease such as heart disease, alcoholism, and diabetes as adults.
This powerful study illustrated just how important psychological health is in relation to physical health. Recognizing the important truth is critical in examining the best course of treatment. These past emotional experiences can’t be treated with a prescription, nor should failing health be considered a natural product of aging.
When you realize that old beliefs resulting from long ago experiences are impacting your current health, you can do something about it. But if you’ve never considered the connection between emotional experiences and physical health, you may never be able to move beyond the impacts. You can’t change what you don’t recognize.
Stress and Health
Why do past experiences have so much power over our physical health? I believe it’s connected to stress.
For years, I’ve talked about the impact of chronic stress on our bodies, especially on adrenal function. Now, it seems everyone is talking about it. Life is full of stressful situations. These can come from external sources or internal sources, and stress can be acute or chronic. While short term stress is normal and helpful, prompting your body into action in a dangerous situation when stress is chronic, severe health issues can result.
When this chronic stress comes from internal sources, such as unresolved emotions, it can be insidious. Part of the problem is that your body can’t distinguish between different types of stress; it all triggers the same stress response.
And when that stress response is constantly activated, other systems suffer. That’s because crucial resources are diverted to deal with the emergency. A temporary pause in digestion or blood flow to critical organs might not cause long term problems. But when the vital organs can’t do their job for extended periods of time, your risk of cardiovascular, digestive, and other serious issues increases.
Some of the most difficult emotions, such as anger and depression, are linked to stress. If stress induces these emotions, and these emotions create more stress, can you see the problem? The longer it goes on, the worse the outcomes may be.
The problem with pessimism
When you’ve been bombarded with stress for too long, a positive outlook on life can be harder and harder to maintain. Research has shown that a negative outlook increases negative health outcomes, while looking at the world in a positive light can improve health and quality of life. A positive outlook can even help you live longer!
Sometimes my patients are convinced there’s nothing they can do to change the way they see the world. While it may be true that some people are more naturally optimistic, I believe we can all make a difference in our own lives. We have to be willing to put in the work, and it IS difficult, but it certainly can be done.
The following strategies can help you get started. It’s unlikely your entire outlook will change overnight, but it doesn’t need to. Even a little extra time spent smiling, practicing gratitude, or discarding old beliefs that don’t serve you any longer can move you in the right direction.
Strategies for Achieving a Positive Outlook
All emotions are okay, and it’s important to recognize and honor the way that you feel. But that doesn’t mean you need to dwell on the negative side of life, or hold on to difficult emotions indefinitely. The following strategies can help you deal with the past, then release old hurts for a more fulfilling future.
- Examine your internal beliefs closely. We all have an internal script. Often, the stories we have created served a purpose, but that purpose is long gone. Working to recognize and let go of negative beliefs about yourself can lift a huge weight off your back and allow you to stand tall. These stories can be difficult to process alone, so the help of a trusted professional may be important to your healing.
- Live for now, not the past. Being present in the moment you are in helps you recognize the good all around you. If you find your mind drifting to past mistakes – whether from three minutes or three years ago – bring your focus back to the present moment. Positive affirmations can help you counter negative thoughts. Find a mantra and repeat it whenever you feel the past creeping in.
- Build a habit of positivity. I know that may sound too simple. After all, if we had the ability to just make ourselves be positive, wouldn’t everyone be doing it? But here’s the thing – we DO have the power to choose how we behave. Have you ever heard the phrase “fake it ‘till you make it?” While I don’t advocate denying difficult feelings, I do think that sometimes, you have to push yourself to see the positive side of things. Find activities that help you notice positive feelings. Talk to positive people. Read uplifting stories online or look at cute animal pictures. Anything that lifts your mood can help you begin to see the bright side of life.
- Take action. Instead of dwelling on the negative thoughts and emotions you have, spring into action. Talk to someone about your feelings, volunteer for an organization that promotes change, or do something kind for a stranger. All of these can boost your spirits and help you look at things in a different light.
- Choose the people you spend time with wisely. Have you ever noticed that when you are around negative people, your own mood dips? The same is true for positivity; it’s contagious! Surround yourself with those who focus on the good things and you might just find yourself doing the same.
- Look for the joy in your life. If you have activities that you know lift your spirits, make it a priority to engage in them daily.
- Practice gratitude. Try writing down three things you’re grateful for every morning before you get out of bed. Focusing on the positives in your life is a great way to start the day!
Emotional Health is the Key to Healing
There’s more to good health than dealing with stress and emotions, but we’re realizing more and more what a significant role these play in health, wellness and healing. While emotional health isn’t the only factor, it’s clear to me that until we address it, optimal health remains out of reach.
I am committed to helping women uncover the root cause of their health issues. Sometimes these root causes are not easily seen and when it comes to really looking at stress and emotions, it may take time – and some help. Spend some time reading through my health library to build an even better understanding of how health and your emotions are connected. You are worth it!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD