How Your Negative Emotions Can Literally Make You Sick
The opposite is true, too: Positive feelings promote physical wellness
You lie awake at three a.m., staring at the ceiling, anxious about some serious problem. Impossible to sleep. We’ve all been there. You’re too pressured and distracted to even think about working out, and besides, you have too much else on your plate, so you skip the gym, even though you know going to the gym makes you feel good. Can’t be helped. Meals are erratic. Instead of thinking about dinner and planning to shop and cook, you grab a pizza on the way home from work. It’s been happening a lot lately. And after that’s done, you need to decompress, so it’s a pint of ice cream in front of the TV for an hour. Until it’s finally time for bed and another three a.m. staring at the ceiling. . . .
For a moment, forget about your emotional health—imagine what you’re doing to your physical health.
When considering the influence of emotion on our well-being, we must first remember that our brains — where most of our feelings originate — are as much a part of our bodies as any other organ, fed by the same flow of blood, oxygen, and nutrients. Our emotions are linked to physiological reactions in our brains, releasing hormones and other powerful chemicals that, in turn, affect our physical health, which has an impact on our emotional state. It’s all connected.
That’s why physical sickness can be caused by a mind under emotional stress. But there’s also the opposite phenomenon: physical wellness that’s fostered by positive feelings. Both kinds underscore the importance of managing our emotional lives.
Even our mindset about stress can influence health outcomes, from weight loss to insomnia. In one study, Alia Crum, an assistant professor at Stanford University, randomly assigned 300 employees at a finance company to watch two different three-minute videos about stress. Half of the participants watched a video that reinforced the negative aspects of stress; the others watched a similar video, but the messaging reinforced the positive side. After four weeks, the employees were surveyed. The “stress is bad” group experienced more negative health symptoms than those in the “stress is good” group.
Inside our brains, hormones and other neurochemicals are being turned on and off depending on what we’re feeling at any given moment. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, located in the midbrain, is one of the major neuroendocrine systems that controls how we respond to stress and also regulates emotions and moods. The HPA axis is where certain hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, originate. Researchers studying this region of the brain have found that early life exposure to mild, everyday stressors enhances our future ability to regulate emotions and confers lifelong resilience. But exposure to extreme or prolonged stress does just the opposite — it induces hyperactivity in the HPA axis and lifelong susceptibility to stress.
There’s ample scientific evidence of the long-term harm caused by childhood emotional trauma, such as bullying. Children may experience compromised immunity to disease, digestive tract pain and upset, headaches, poor sleep, inability to concentrate, and depression. These effects can persist into adulthood, creating physical and mental health problems long after the bullying is in the past.
Feeling “down” — pessimism, apathy, depression — is linked to low levels of serotonin and dopamine, the so-called feel-good neurotransmitters. Serotonin plays a role in pain perception, which may be why people experiencing negative emotions report more severe symptoms of illness, and nearly half of patients with depression also suffer aches and pains.
According to one study, a 30-minute argument with your significant other can slow your body’s ability to heal by at least a day. And if you argue regularly, that delay is doubled.
Negative emotional states — anxiety, anger, sadness, stress — are closely associated with unhealthy behaviors, such as poor diet, smoking, excessive drinking, physical inactivity, and social isolation, many of which we found in a recent study with more than 5,000 teachers from across the United States. Those are the same lifestyle factors that contribute to our most feared and widespread illnesses: heart disease, cancer, Type 2 diabetes, addiction, dementia. These conditions in turn have a devastating impact on our emotional lives, and the feedback loop turns into a downward spiral for our health, mental and physical. Ultimately, they deepen our feelings of hopelessness and despair that we will ever manage to improve our moods or our health.
There’s a great deal of medical research linking hostility and anger to heart disease. Men reporting the highest levels of anger were over two and a half times more likely to suffer cardiac events such as heart attack than other men. Negative emotions have been associated with hypertension, increased heart rate, constriction of peripheral blood vessels, unhealthy blood lipids, and decreased immune system function.
Not only does an angry outburst cause a spike in blood pressure, but every time we recall what made us so mad, our blood pressure rises again. According to one study, a 30-minute argument with your significant other can slow your body’s ability to heal by at least a day. And if you argue regularly, that delay is doubled. Even subtle forms of anger, such as impatience, irritability, and grouchiness, may damage health.
We can see the influence of our emotions on our physical health in less dire ways, too. The stress associated with knowing you have to deliver a speech can double the severity of allergy symptoms for two days. Feeling sad makes symptoms of illness seem more severe and cause greater discomfort. In one study, people who scored low on positive emotions were three times as likely to become sick after exposure to a virus than those who scored higher. When the latter group did get sick, their symptoms were less severe.
But our emotions can also prompt the release of beneficial neurochemicals and hormones. Crying is soothing because it carries stress hormones out of our bodies. Feelings of gratitude increase oxygen levels in our tissues, speed healing, and boost our immune system. Being in love was found to raise the level of nerve growth factor, a hormone-like substance that restores the nervous system and improves memory. The effect lasts for about a year, according to researchers. In one study, laughter caused by watching a comedy film increased the flow of beta-endorphins, which enhance our mood, and stimulated growth hormones, which repair our cells. Even the anticipation of laughter was found to lower the levels of cortisol and adrenaline. Laughter may also reduce the risk of heart attack. Feeling good, therefore, may encourage healthy behaviors, which in turn can promote greater emotional well-being and physical health.
We’ll never eradicate negative emotions from our lives. Nor should we. But we need to attend to the play of positive and negative emotions, which is out of balance for too many of us. Our research at Yale revealed that high school students, teachers, and business professionals experience negative emotions up to 70% of the time they are in school or work. Their feelings aren’t the only thing at stake — so is their health. What will it take to switch the ratio of negative-to-positive emotions?