By: Wyler Hecht
Physicians have observed the connection between emotions and physical health for centuries, but the scientific study of this topic, psychoneuroimmunology, is fairly new. It’s a mouthful, right? But simply put it is the study of how our mental and emotional status interplays with our central nervous system, our endocrine system and our immune function. In short, what’s the domino effect of an emotion?
Humans, like all living species, must constantly adapt to their environment to survive, and it is our ability to recognize and respond to a variety of stressors that make adaptation possible. When the brain registers danger or stress, the stress-response system, or the fight-or-flight system, is activated. Our heart and respiratory rates increase, peripheral vision become sharper, and blood flow is shunted away from our organs toward active muscles.
The stress-response produces hormones and neurotransmitters that allow us to mobilize and take action. But our health actually suffers when the stress-response is prolonged. Most of the biochemistry and physiology beneficial for health and longevity must be shut down in exchange for that which contributes to survival. We simply do not heal, regenerate or rejuvenate when we are in stress mode. There is no shortage of studies proving that prolonged stress contributes to a number of diseases, but research also demonstrates the opposite. The relaxation-response promotes health and longevity.
So what turns the fight-or-flight system on and off? Certainly fear, hunger and indignation turn it on along with unresolved feelings of anger, resentment and/or loneliness. Left on, these feelings can negatively affect our health. So how do we turn that off and the relaxation-response on? Studies in psychoneuroimmunology are showing us that a daily practice of expressing love, kindness, gratitude and forgiveness toward others and ourselves contributes significantly to good health. Indeed, this practice may be the most important thing one does for health and longevity. According to some studies, it is perhaps even more important than physical exercise and kicking the nicotine habit.
Recognizing stress sends one message to our central nervous system, but sowing the seeds of love and gratitude send a message as well. And our endocrine and immune systems respond. Studies show that people who engage in a healthy social network have half the risk of heart disease compared to those who feel lonely. People who practice optimism are more than 70 percent less likely to develop heart disease than pessimists. People who adopt an “attitude of gratitude” have stronger immune systems than those who do not.
There are hundreds of ways to practice turning on the relaxation-response! Call a friend or loved one that you haven’t spoken with in a while. Think of things you are grateful for every day. Express kindness freely. Get a massage. Meditate or pray each day. Walk in the woods. Learn yoga or tai chi. Sing. If you’re holding old anger toward someone, work on letting it go. That doesn’t mean pretending that you weren’t mistreated. In fact you don’t even need to involve the person. When you lay the resentment to rest, the one you’re letting off the hook is yourself!