Study after study demonstrate that our thoughts and emotions affect our body. Our mood very definitely drives our physical state of being. One story in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living illustrates this point better than any research study.
Although she was functioning quite well, “Mrs. S” had a narrowing of one of the valves on the right side of her heart (the tricuspid valve), and was in mild congestive heart failure. She would come to the weekly cardiac clinic run by Samuel Levine, M.D., to receive digitalis and injections of a mercurial diuretic. One day he turned to the team of visiting physicians and said, “This woman has TS,” and abruptly left.
Mrs. S’s demeanor suddenly changed. She became anxious and started hyperventilating. Sweating, her pulse accelerated to more than 150 beats a minute. Her lungs, which were clear moments earlier, developed moisture.
Dr. Bernard Lown, M.D., who was training to be a cardiologist at the time, asked her what was bothering her. She explained that she interpreted “TS” to mean “terminal situation.” He clarified that TS was a medical acronym for “tricuspid stenosis.” However, he was unsuccessful at reassuring her, and her congestion worsened. Soon she was in massive pulmonary edema. Later that day she died from intractable heart failure.
Would she had survived if Dr. Levine didn’t mention TS?
We will never know.
However, we do know that any kind of stress or emotional upset has physical implications. Feelings and thoughts communicate messages to all of our biological systems far more often and effectively than we realize.
For decades we have known that depression is not just a mental disorder. It clearly has physical manifestations.
In a study published in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 69 percent of persons who met the criteria for depression consulted a doctor for aches and pains. Mood disorders can show up in surprising symptoms — like bloating, backaches, or joint pain. Consider the following statistics:
- As many as 40 percent of people with migraine have comorbid depression says Lisa K. Mannix, MD, a board-certified neurologist in Cincinnati.
- According to one study, people with fibromyalgia are 3.4 times more likely to have major depression than people without fibromyalgia.
- Depression is found in as many as 52 percent of gluten-sensitive individuals says David Perlmutter, MD.
- According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 3 in 20 Americans with heart disease experience depression compared to the 1 in 20 average of people without heart disease.
A 2007 Norwegian study found that those participants with significant depression symptoms had a higher risk of death from most major causes, including heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses, and conditions of the nervous system. A March 2016 study by an international team of researchers lead by the University of Granada (UGR) demonstrated that depression causes important alterations of oxidative stress, possibly explaining the significant association between depression and cardiovascular diseases and cancer. That research, a meta analysis of 29 previous studies, comprising almost 4000 people, asserts that depression should be considered a systemic disease (rather than a mental disorder) because it affects the whole organism.
When we are in the throws of a full depressive episode, we clearly identify the physical manifestations of our illness: we can’t sleep or we sleep too much; we can’t eat or we eat too much; we are nauseous, tired, and feel stuck in mud. Acute anxiety might give us heart palpitations that are hard to ignore or tremors that make it impossible to type or text.
However, most of us are unaware of the body sensations that occur constantly, alerting us to the state of our emotional health, and giving us an opportunity to calm ourselves down. Moreover, our body’s reactions to our thoughts can feed the loop of negative ruminations, increasing our depression. In the Mindful Way Through Depression, the authors write:
When a negative thought or image arises in the mind, there will be a sense of contraction, tightening, or bracing in the body somewhere. It may be a frown, a stomach churning, a pallor in the skin, or a tension in the lower back—all part of a preparation to freeze, right, or run.
Once the body reacts in this way to negative thoughts and images, it feeds back to the mind the information that we are threatened or upset. Research has shown that the state of our bodies affects the state of our minds without our having any awareness….
When we’re unhappy, the effect of that mood on our body can bias the way we evaluate and interpret things around us without our being even the slightest bit aware that this is happening.
This actually gives us an opportunity to influence our emotions and thoughts using our bodies. I have been doing several exercises lately as part of a women’s mindfulness group that aim to do just that. During each session the therapists will ask me and the other eight women to locate where our distress has landed in our bodies.
Mine is usually in my stomach and in my heart or chest. Several times a day I will find myself with a knot in my stomach and contractions in my chest when I think about something disconcerting. Instead of trying to ignore it or distract myself in work, I will stop what I’m doing and breathe into the uncomfortable bodily sensation, sometimes repeating a mantra of self-compassion.
By calming down my body in this way, I can sometimes reverse the vicious cycle of fear-contraction-rumination. Even if the thoughts and emotions persist, I am teaching myself to embrace my depressive symptoms in a new way that will relieve some of the suffering.
It turns out that our bodies have a lot to say about our depression.
What is your body telling you?
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