Is your health under the influence of your emotions?
Everybody knows the tricks for a better tomorrow after too much fun tonight: Gulp water, grab a couple aspirin, maybe pop a vitamin, and sleep it off. But what's the prescription for the lingering gray cloud that can last for days—or even longer—after scenes that stir up feelings of fear, sadness, anger, anxiety, or jealousy?
The first step is recognizing what's happening to our bodies.
Immediately after spats with bosses, friends, family, or lovers, we're probably aware that we feel wretched, and why. But we often overlook the aftershocks of intense negative emotions: the physical, biochemical changes.
Rashes, sleep disturbances, fatigue, shortness of breath, fluctuations in appetite, increased heart rate or blood pressure, nausea, headaches—all these symptoms can be part of an "emotional hangover."
For example, the argument you had yesterday with your significant other might manifest itself today as indigestion or a stomachache. Romantic breakups can lead to breakouts and, literally, to heartache—heartburn, palpitations, or chest pressure.
"When people experience their strongest emotions in their bodies, they most often feel them in their stomachs and in their chests," notes Dr. Arthur Aron, a social psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who studies the bodies and minds of people in love.
What's the correlation?
Each of our five basic emotions—fear, anger, sadness, love, and joy—uses a distinct brain circuit. Negative emotions originate in the right brain, home to millions of connections to the body. Via the brain stem, the emotions funnel into pathways that lead to to other organs.
Talking about negative feelings is perhaps the best medicine to prevent them from electrically and biochemically disrupting the right brain's circuits.
"If you respond to the emotion that occurs, it will stop, and you can go on with your life," says Dr. Mona Lisa Schulz, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont School of Medicine and Maine Medical Center, Portland. "But if you don't, the emotion hangs over the next day, gets hung up in your right brain, and—fester fester, rot rot, simmer simmer—seeps from your right brain into your body."
Since when do women have trouble talking about their feelings?
They don't, says Schulz, unless they fear that being assertive could jeopardize a relationship or a career. She believes that women have been socialized to dilute strong emotion, to make it more palatable to others so they won't lose love, support, or financial safety.
The cure is to "unlearn your programming," Schulz explains, by speaking up with the right balance of assertiveness and emotional intensity. If you can't talk directly to the person with whom you were arguing or disagreeing, seek out a trusted friend, colleague, medical professional, or adviser who can offer support, or just listen.
Other remedies include physical activity, which helps to balance the brain's biochemistry, treatments like massage or meditation, keeping a journal of your emotional experience, and writing an "anger letter" (even if it never gets sent).
Regardless of what remedy you choose, trust your intuition about what you’re feeling, and why, says Schulz. Otherwise your health is "under the influence" of your emotions.
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