by Kathleen Aharoni
Hippocrates said, “I would rather know the person with the disease than the disease the person has.”
Let me know if I am taking liberties with this quote.
I believe that what he’s saying—who we are; how we present ourselves, face and perceive our lives—is integral to our health and to the treatment of what ails us. So, if we care about ourselves last, worry about and/or want to control what others think and do or hold our tongue and keep our emotions in check, we may be causing ourselves unnecessary stress, thereby putting ourselves at more risk for injury or disease.
In the book, When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, Dr. Gabor Maté, asserts that because of the intricate weaving of our psychological, endocrine, neurological and immune systems, repressed emotion can cause stress and lead to a chain reaction within us. In some people, the result can be serious disease.
“Repression—disassociating emotions from awareness and relegating them to the unconscious realm—disorganizes and confuses our physiological defenses so that in some people, these defenses go awry, becoming the destroyers of health rather than the protectors,” he writes.
Although few in the medical field are ready to say that stress directly causes disease, the link between our psychology and physiology is becoming increasingly undeniable.
“By recognizing stressful thoughts and behavioral patterns that can elicit the sympathetic nervous system, or what is commonly known as the fight-or-flight system, we can teach people strategies for changing their perceptions and behavior,” says Janine Gauthier, Ph.D., director of Psycho Oncology and director of Clinical Services for the Cancer Integrative Medicine Program at Rush University Medical Center.
“Such changes may positively impact the immune system and help people engage in more adaptive coping strategies that will allow their bodies to recover more readily from disease,” she says.
Perhaps this is why cancer centers are becoming increasingly populated with integrative medicine programs and are offering to their patients such ancient practices as meditation, yoga, acupuncture and breath work as well as relaxation training and guided imagery. These practices are “a way to decrease symptoms, increase control as well as help to boost their immune systems,” says Gauthier.
“The first thing I evaluate when meeting with new patients is their breathing and how they respond to the stress of their diagnosis,” she says. “In the face of long-standing stress and emotional distress, individuals are at an increased risk of having their immune systems compromised,” she explains.
Gauthier teaches patients to breathe diaphragmatically (belly breathing), which triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in our relaxation response. This decreases heart rate, reduces blood pressure and muscle tension and subsequently relieves physical pain.
Of course, when patients are feeling physically stronger and less emotionally constricted, or are experiencing only low or no levels of pain, they feel better in body and mind, and as a result, their quality of life often increases, and they are better able to cope with and deal with their cancer.
“There is definitely a link between stress and disease,” says Dr. Daniel Rosenthal, program director of Rush University’s Combined Internal Medicine and Psychiatry Training Program. “When bad things happen to a person, they are more likely to get a disease,” he says. He has also found that if we repress our emotions, we do worse, unless we are in therapy.
The first question he asks his patients is, “Do you keep your emotions inside, or do you tell people what you are feeling?”
So, express yourself. Breathe. And, be sure your doctor knows if any extraordinary, stressful events are going on in your life such as marriage, divorce, death, job loss, emotional or physical abuse, etc. If there are, get help. From holistic doctors to altruistic ones, from meditation classes to life coaches, there are many ways to deal with the emotional aspects of our lives so that we are well in body, mind and spirit.
Can you sense it? We are in the midst of a great change. A new science has even been developed to study the connection between our emotions and our nervous and immune systems. It is called psychoneuroimmunology. Look it up; it’s fascinating.
Hippocrates would be proud.
Kathleen Aharoni is a movement and life coach and owner of Water Over Stone. A Feldenkrais® practioner, she has served on the faculties of Northwestern University and Columbia College. She believes wholeheartedly in our innate well-being and its incredible power. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org[email_link]