The relation between emotional and physical health

Most people are aware of the mind-body connection; how your mental processes can affect your physical state. A frightening experience can cause you to faint, an angry disposition can bring on back pain, a positive attitude can aid in recovery from disease and stress can kill you.

This idea has been a fundamental premise in many ancient healing systems, including Hippocrates, the ‘Father of Western Medicine’, who taught that good health depends on a balance of mind, body and environment.


“A basic emotion such as fear can be described as an abstract feeling or as a tangible molecule of the hormone adrenaline,” writes Deepak Chopra in Ageless Body, Timeless Mind. “Without the feeling there is no hormone; without the hormone there is no feeling … The revolution we call mind-body medicine was based on this simple discovery: wherever thought goes, a chemical goes with it.”

The effect of emotions upon the body

In Greek Medicine, as in other ancient medical systems, the internal organs are seen as being strongly affected by the emotions. For example;

The colon

– Very vulnerable to aggravations and excesses of the Melancholic emotions – especially chronic or deeply held worry, anxiety and nervous or emotional stress and tension. Security issues and deep insecurities will also impact negatively on the colon, so physically this can produce symptoms like constipation, irritable bowel syndrome or spastic colon, and if the aggravation is severe, even colitis and more serious degenerative diseases may result.

The adrenal glands

– Our fight-or-flight adrenaline response is excessively provoked by acute stress and emotional outbursts of anger and frustration in those whose lives have become an over-dramatized emotional roller coaster. Chronic stress aggravates the functioning of hormones like cortisol, which can lead to weight gain, especially in the lower body and midriff, as well as rising blood sugar, if the stress is constant and unresolved.

The throat

– The body’s main communications centre. An inability to speak one’s truth will often cause physical problems with the throat; in extreme cases, one may even become mute and unable to speak. The throat is also the upper end of the digestive tract, and hence part of a bigger physical and emotional system. Acute emotional tensions and anxieties can agitate,say,the liver, causing it to rise and get bottlenecked in the throat; one then feels like they’re choking on something, or has something lodged in the throat, a condition called Globus Hystericus.

Emotional feelings of sadness, grief or intense sentimentality can cause a lump in the throat. Stuffing one’s emotions and feelings down one’s throat can have a huge impact on health, and will increase the vulnerability to dysfunction and disease.

The discovery of the mind-body connection

There is this extraordinarily intimate two-way communication going on between our body and mind that affects both our physical state and our mental and emotional health and modern science is also recognising this.

It began in the 1920s, when Harvard scientist Walter Cannon, MD, identified the fight-or-flight response through which the body secretes hormones such as epinephrine and nonepinephrine. When they enter the blood stream, these hormones produce changes in the body – i.e. a quickened heart or increased breathing rate, that put the person in a better physical state to escape or confront danger.

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In the following decade, Hungarian-born scientist Hans Selye, MD, pioneered the field of stress research by describing how the wear-and-tear of constant stress could affect us biologically.

The Placebo effect

One of the best ways of seeing how this works is via the Placebo effect:

The word placebo comes from the Latin for “I will please,” and occurs when a fake treatment, an inactive substance like sugar, distilled water, or saline solution can inexplicably improve a patient’s condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful.

Ted Kaptchuk, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, conducted a study with a group of subjects who had joined hoping to alleviate severe arm pain: carpal tunnel, tendinitis, chronic pain in the elbow, shoulder or wrist.

The results

In one part of the study, half the subjects received pain-reducing pills; the others were offered acupuncture treatments. And in both cases people began to call in, saying they couldn’t get out of bed. The pills were making them sluggish, the needles caused swelling and redness; some patients’ pain ballooned to nightmarish levels.

“The side effects were simply amazing,” Kaptchuk explains; curiously, they were exactly what patients had been warned their treatment might produce. But even more astounding, most of the other patients reported real relief, and those who received acupuncture felt even better than those on the anti-pain pill. These were exceptional findings: no one had ever proven that acupuncture worked better than painkillers.

But Kaptchuk’s study didn’t prove it, either!

The pills his team had given patients were actually made of cornstarch; the “acupuncture” needles were retractable shams that never pierced the skin. The study wasn’t aimed at comparing two treatments. It was designed to compare two fakes.

The “self-healing” experiment

A study at the Harvard Medical School took this one step further. People with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) were given a placebo and informed participants beforehand that the pills they were being given were made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, though that they have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.

What the researchers found was startling in its implications for medicine.

Despite being aware they were taking placebos, the participants rated their symptoms as “moderately improved” on average. In other words, they knew what they were taking wasn’t a drug — it was a medical “nothing” — but the very consciousness of taking something made them experience fewer symptoms.

Moving forward

Remember, your body responds to the way you think, feel and act. So next time you are stressed, anxious, have a niggling back pain or headache- listen to your body- it is trying to give you a message and let you know that something isn’t quite right.


Read more from WatchFit Expert Dean Griffiths

Sham device v inert pill: Randomised controlled trial of two placebo treatments
Placebos without Deception: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Irritable Bowel Syndrome 

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