Emotions, Stress and Health

The white rats started to die. This wasn’t supposed to happen. In this experiment, the rats were being conditioned to dislike saccharin-flavored water; they were not supposed to die for heavens sake.

Robert Ader, in research on weight control, put an agent in the saccharin water that would make the rats ill so they wouldn’t want to eat sweets, but it did something else, it reduced the effectiveness of their immune system. Now here’s the interesting part, when the rats ate the saccharin flavored water, without the illness causing agent, they still got sick and died. They had no reason for being ill, it was only water! What Ader discovered was that the immune system in rats could be tricked into shutting down, causing them to become ill and die!

Does this mean that I could trick my immune system into shutting down? You bet it does, and the best way to do it is with stress and negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression or pessimism.

In another rather icky experiment, half the college students being tested had live cold virus dropped in their noses, the other half had salt water. But surprisingly, not all of the students who were exposed to the virus got sick. You guessed it; the only ones who got sick also had high levels of stress and negative emotions. As a matter of fact, these were the only things that seemed to make a difference. They mattered more than being with an infectious roommate, age, sex, smoking, alcohol consumption, exercise, diet, or quality of sleep. Basically, stress and negative emotions reduce the effectiveness of the immune system and it’s ability to fight off viruses, bacteria and other foreign invaders. So what else is new?

People who experienced chronic anxiety, long periods of sadness and pessimism, unremitting tension or incessant hostility, relentless cynicism or suspiciousness were found to have double the medical problems with diseases such as asthma, arthritis, headaches, peptic ulcers and heart disease, as other people. This makes distressing emotions as toxic a risk factor as, say, smoking or a high cholesterol diet are for heart disease.

According to Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, helping people manage their upsetting feelings such as anger, anxiety, depression, pessimism and loneliness is a form of disease prevention. So here are some tips on how to help you stay healthy.

1. Find the hope in your situation. People who have a great deal of hopefulness are better able to bear up under trying circumstances, including medical difficulties. One way to do this is to challenge negative thoughts. “My husband lost his job, and I hope he gets another one” is as valid a thought as, “My husband lost his job, he’s a loser and will never find another job.” It is important to do a reality check on the negative thoughts. Your immune system will function better if you ruminate on the hopeful thought instead of the negative one.

2. Make friends. Being in healthy relationships has been shown to have a profound positive effect on the immune system, as long as the relationship is positive. Negative relationships take their own toll. Marital arguments, for example, have a negative impact on the immune system. It seems to be critical for our important relationships, the ones we are in on a day-to-day basis to be optimistic, fun and friendly.

3. Get it off your chest. Unburdening a troubled heart, either in writing, or in the presence of another person appears to be good medicine. In a 1993 study, Lester Luborsky found medical patients who were given psychotherapy in addition to surgery or other medical treatment fared better medically than those patients who received medical treatment alone.

Lets face it; there is a connection between emotions, the immune system and physical health. It’s scary to think that like the college students, I could be hurting myself right now with my stress and not even know it. To quote Goleman,

“Many patients can benefit measurably when their psychological needs are attended to along with their purely medical ones.”

And I’ll tell you, just knowing that a live cold virus will never be dripped in my nose goes a long way toward reducing my stress.