Do Love and Other Emotions Affect My Health?
Yes. That’s the short answer, but how does this work? And, what exactly is an emotion? Your emotions are natural and instinctive states of mind that come from your circumstances or thoughts. Your feelings are emotions that you feel. Let’s break it down a little more:
How emotions affect actions.
You have an experience that inspires a thought: “That person was so rude!” and this affects how you feel: annoyed or agitated. How you feel influences your behavior: Maybe you are rude back, or maybe you leave and drive home in an agitated state of mind. Carrying around this annoyance can definitely affect your health. But it’s more complicated than that. Your body physically responds to how you think, feel, and act.
How many emotions do we experience?
It used to be that you’d hear that there are six different emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise—but that just doesn’t cover it. Emotions come in an amazing array and complexity of nuanced feelings. Think about love for a minute. Is the happiness you feel when you think about falling in love for the first time the same as it is when you think of a fun day at the beach with friends? Is love happiness? Is it a feeling on its own? We sure talk about it a lot, especially since it’s the month of love and Valentine’s day is right around the corner (did you buy your flowers?). Love and happiness can encompass so many emotions such as ecstasy, joy, serenity, admiration, awe, surprise. It gets even more complex when you think of the fact that surprise can be happy or scary. In 1980 Robert Plutchik, author, psychologist, and professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine designed this wheel of emotion that effectively shows the nuances of 32 feelings.
How emotions affect your health.
Your body is incredibly sensitive to your emotions, especially your gut. Think about the saying, “Trust your gut.” Why is this a thing? Have you ever felt “butterflies” in your stomach, or have you had a “gut-wrenching” experience? Your gastrointestinal tract is influenced by how you feel because your brain and gut are intimately intertwined. If your gut is upset by food, it sends a signal to your brain. The same thing happens in reverse. When you feel upset or elated, your brain sends a signal to your gut. That’s why chronic stress or anxiety can cause ulcers and other digestive issues such as heartburn, and stomach cramps and pain.
Eastern healing practices, health, and your emotions
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is holistic, meaning that it views all of you—your body, your emotional makeup, and your needs—as unique and individual. If you went to a Chinese medical physician about feeling depressed or having road rage, the practitioner would likely suggest nutrition, herbs, and therapy to unblock channels called meridians. The meridian system is the highway system of your body, and the goal is to keep all “traffic” flowing smoothly. In TCM, your meridians connect circulation to your organs to your tissues—and various organ meridians affect various emotions. There is overlap here, and more than one organ can and often is influenced by a given feeling. While I see this first hand in my practice all the time, this is also an area where I see eastern philosophy and western science showing similar findings and links. Let’s take a look:
- Joy and Love: In TCM this emotion is connected to your heart. Interestingly, western research shows that people in happy relationships (strong in love) are better able to survive heart bypass surgery (they have stronger hearts). Also, a study of more than 6,000 men and women, ages 25 to 74, found that focusing on the positive—having a sense of hopefulness, engagement in life, and enthusiasm reduces the risk of heart disease when compared to those who reported increased negative feelings. Also, in India in Ayurveda healing traditions, heart conditions are considered emotional in nature just as much as they are physical.
- Anger and Anxiety: When these emotions are chronic or frequent they increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Anger and anxiety can affect many organs according to TCM including your heart, your lungs, your pericardium, your liver, your kidneys, and your stomach. These feelings change your heart’s electrical stability, which increases inflammation and arterial stiffening. Anxious people tend to take shallow and irregular breaths, which can eventually weaken your lungs. Research also finds that anxiety and depression can increase rates of gastrointestinal distress that causes ulcerative colitis (UC) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
- Grief and Sadness: Depression can be especially prominent in this chilly time of year. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) affects millions of people, and the symptoms can include extreme fatigue and loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed. In TCM, sadness, grief, and depression can show blocked energy in the kidney, heart, lung, liver, and heart meridian. Depression can also cause weight gain and carbohydrate cravings. When someone close to us dies, it naturally triggers sadness and grief, but some people can experience what doctors call “Complicated Grief,” which is a severe, all-encompassing, and unrelenting grief that lasts an extended amount of time. You can actually die of a broken heart. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that those who had lost a partner were more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in the following 30 days. Grief clearly affects your sympathetic nervous system, which can affect your blood pressure, clotting, and your heart rate.
How to keep your emotions balanced.
If you are feeling noticeably unbalanced—chronic anxiety, depression, anger, and so on—or if you have frequent mood swings from one extreme to the other (ecstatic joy to overwhelming dread), it’s important for you to talk with your primary doctor. One of the reasons that I find TCM useful is that when I examine my patients who are feeling out of balance emotionally, I can often find the mood also affecting the same organ discussed in TCM. This can give me clues and direction as to the best treatment plans. Here are three things I always recommend to those feeling out of balance:
- Don’t be an island: If you are feeling sad, angry, or anxious—talk to someone. Texting doesn’t count. Call a friend, make an appointment with your doctor, go to a support group. As soon as you share your fears, aggravations, and grief those emotions lessen. Studies show in brain scans that when people share negative emotions, the feelings decrease, compared to when they feel something in isolation.
- Meditate: One of the most effective and simple ways to improve emotional balance is by incorporating mindfulness exercises into your daily life. This can be done any time of the day but is most effective when you carve out 10 to 30 minutes a day to dedicate to calming and freeing your mind. The simplest and fastest way to do this is with a 10-minute meditation. You don’t need anything but a quiet place to sit where you won’t be interrupted. Here’s how it works: 10 Minute Meditation: Sit somewhere quiet and set a timer for 10 minutes. Take a deep breath and blow it all out. Close your eyes. Inhale through your nose and focus entirely on that inhale: Feel the air go all the way in, feel your belly expand, and then exhale, blowing all the air slowly out of your mouth, feeling your belly contract. Continue, focusing all your mental energy on each inhale and each exhale. When your mind wanders—and it will because that is the nature of your mind—simply bring your focus back, again and again, to your breath. Let your thoughts and feelings drive quietly by in your mind, like cars zipping down a road: As soon as one thought or feeling pops up, let it drive on by, and let the next one drive on through, and so on. Continue until your timer goes off. It doesn’t matter if you spend all but one breath wandering around in your mental landscape—the effort to meditate is what counts. Each day, take a 10-minutes to quiet your mind, center your breath, close your eyes, and just focus on one breath at a time!
- Use Aromatherapy: According to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, aromatherapy is “the art and science of using naturally extracted aromas from plants to balance, harmonize, and promote the health of body, mind, and spirit.” You can use essential oils in a diffuser, or dabbed on your wrists, to help calm or balance your emotional moods. The essential oils used in aromatherapy are natural oils that have been obtained from a plant, fruit, seed, or herb via a distillation process using steam, water, or steam and water, or have been cold pressed (as with citrus peel oils). Here are my favorites:
- For increased energy and reduced fatigue: Peppermint, eucalyptus, and rosemary
- To boost happiness and joy: Lemon, lemongrass, mandarin, and bergamot
- For love and libido: Ylang ylang and clary sage
- For calm and relaxation: Try clove and lavender.
- For emotional balance and grounding: Geranium,
- To feel emotional warmth: Ginger
- To enhance mental clarity and focus: Sandalwood
- Affirmations I am a huge believer in affirmations. I do think they really reprogram your brain’s pathways over time to shift away from habitual negative thinking to a positive mindset. Research indicates that using these sorts of conscious and purposeful inner directions can rewire your neural pathways to be more powerful. Affirmations can come from any- where—books, prayers, quotes that speak to you, or your favorite yoga class. If you search online for “affirmations” plus “courage,” “serenity,” “optimism,” “energy,” and so on, you’ll find hundreds for every circumstance and situation. Here are a few classics you can use.
- “I am getting better, healthier, and happier every day in every way.”
- “I am beautiful just as I am right in this moment.”
- “I am grateful for all the abundance in my life.”
- “I am awake and aware of the wisdom and healing abilities of my body.”
- “I honor and respect myself and my body and mind.”
You can also design your own affirmations. There are just a few basic rules for coming up with effective phrases. What do you notice about the five I offered above? First, they are in the present tense. You might not have a lot of abundance in your life right now, but by saying the affirmation as if it already is true—acting “as if”—your brain believes it to be so. So it’s “I am” and “I have,” not “I am going to have” or “I will have.” Second, avoid negative words such as “don’t,” “not,” or “shouldn’t.” Affirmations work best if kept on the glass-half-full side of the equation. Finally, the affirmation can’t be something you completely reject. You can’t say “I am the perfect weight” if you are firmly convinced that you are not, but you can say “I see the beauty inside myself right now.”