The Connection between Emotional and Physical Health

Susan E. Bennett, Ph.D., Ext. 320


There was a time when people believed in the mind-body split.  When someone had difficulty, we wondered if the issue was physical or emotional.  There is now a great deal of evidence that people's emotional well-being affects their physical well-being as well as the reverse (MacDonald as cited in Lijewski, 2018).


One mediating factor appears to be stress.  When we experience stress (due to positive or negative events), our body responds by going into a fight or flight mode.  This response is excellent for handling short-term stressors like running away from a dangerous situation.  Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline help the body mobilize.  However, if these hormones continue to be released in an ongoing manner (e.g., when we worry about past or future events), they can harm us physically.  In other words, issues such as job stress, financial difficulty, and relationship conflict can hurt our bodies.  Other issues that we may not readily recognize as stress such as poor sleep, poor nutrition, or poor air quality are also potential stressors.  Also, when we are stressed, it is easy to make poor choices such as overeating, smoking, overworking, or drinking too much alcohol (Lijewski, 2018).


When people experience stress, they are more likely to struggle with any number of physical difficulties such as cardiovascular problems, headaches, asthma, muscle pain, and joint pain. Chronic stress can lead to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, back pain, fatigue, raised blood pressure, ulcers, an increased chance of infertility, irritable bowel syndrome, a stronger vulnerability to anxiety and depression, and accelerated aging.  In general, stress increases our vulnerability to physical ailments by suppressing the functioning of our immune systems.  Two people may run across the same germ and one will fall ill while the other will not. When we are "heartsick" our bodies are more likely to become sick (MacDonald as cited in Lijewski, 2018).


The good news is that there are a number of things we can do to manage the inevitable stressors that life presents. Wade Lijewski (2018) suggests:

  • Seek out social support.
  • Eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
  • Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs. And don't smoke.
  • Accept that there are events that you cannot control.
  • Maintain a positive attitude. Instead of focusing on the negatives, such as "Nothing goes right for me," or "Bad thing will always happen to me," give yourself positive messages, like "I'm doing my best," or "I'll ask for help if I need it."
  • Stop stress in its tracks; if you feel overwhelmed, take a walk or drive in the slow lane to avoid getting angry at other drivers.
  • Manage your time. Give yourself time to get things done and set your watch so you have more time to prepare for an event.
  • Do things you find enjoyable, like reading or gardening.
  • Take 15-20 minutes every day to sit quietly and reflect. Learn and practice relaxation techniques like yoga and deep breathing.
  • Exercise regularly by bicycling, walking, hiking, jogging, or working out at the gym. Your body can fight stress better when it is fit.
  • Get enough rest and sleep. Your body needs time to recover from stressful events.

 

Looking at such a list can be overwhelming.  It is easy to try to do too much or just throw in the towel and do nothing.  It is helpful to set your sights on small steps.  Focus on changing just one habit.  Even walking for 5 minutes can be the beginning of what may ultimately be a life changing new behavior. I often recommend that people "only count the wins" and "ignore the losses."  Five minutes of walking is preferable to zero minutes of walking.  Next week, you may find yourself walking for 10 minutes, but enjoy the 5 minute accomplishment now. When changing habits, it is good to take "one bite out of the elephant at a time."


There is one powerful factor which affects our physical health that people often do not fully appreciate.  This is establishing and maintaining positive relationships. If you find yourself unmotivated to cut out the doughnuts right now, perhaps you might be willing to work toward a better marriage, more fulfilling friendships, or more connection with your children. 


There is evidence that high quality friendships are as effective in promoting health as a healthy diet and exercise. Insufficient socializing may have the same effect as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.  Amazingly, when people maintain healthy social lives, they are 50% less likely to die from any cause (Holt-Lunstad as cited in Lijewski, 2018).  It is most beneficial to have a high quantity and high quality of social connections.  That being said, having even one confidante allows people to live longer and recover faster from illness.  There are a number of vehicles for this, including coworkers, neighbors, religious and volunteer organizations, arts and crafts groups, or sports leagues.  There is reason to believe that even casual chats with a neighbor, coffee shop barista, or the librarian you see regularly can be beneficial.


Like most worthwhile things, relationships of depth take real work.  It is easy to take our relationships for granted and let them languish. Often people wish for more or better relationships but are held back by fear or misguided ideas about how to reach the goal.  Wade Lijewski (2018) suggests that "For a friendship or marriage to allow both people to flourish, each person is an active participant in creating the other one's positive future". How to do this?  People often fall into trying to mold the other's behavior to meet their own needs or into giving advice.  Or, people react from a place of fear and get engaged in escalating and unhelpful conflicts, or just disengage and drift apart.

 

Instead, you can empower yourself by focusing on your own behavior.  Relationships are like mirrors in which we can observe our effect on others.  Each day is like an experiment.  We can practice positive behaviors and observe the impact (Gielan as cited in Lijewski, 2018).  Sometimes, we see immediate positive results.  Even smiling or saying "Good morning" to a stranger can improve one's day.  Generosity and empathy can create a positive feedback loop in a relationship with one good turn increasing the likelihood of a similar response.  Sometimes, we need to think of positive behaviors as seeds we plant that will take some time to germinate. 


However, just being positive is not enough.  An essential, often challenging aspect of good relationships, is being assertive.  Being empathic and respectful with a friend, coworker, or partner while clearly advocating for oneself is protective of relationships.  People often think accommodating and tolerating others is most helpful.  While there are certainly moments to "turn the other cheek", chronic overaccommodation of others leads to resentment and conflict (overt and covert).  Learning to be assertive takes bravery and practice but is well worth the effort.  Close connections allow people to be happier, physically healthier, and more resilient in the face of stress.


There are many opportunities each day to pause and reflect on whether we are acting from a place of fear or rigidity (e.g., who is right/wrong? whose fault is it?).  Soothing yourself and then acting with a positive intention rather than with fear or anger can reap major relationship benefits.  Whenever we do this, we grow (Gielan as cited in Lijewski, 2018).  These efforts not only let us be our best emotional selves and increase the quality of our lives, but also protect our physical selves.


Improving relationships is part art, part science.  If you are uncertain how to improve your relationships, consider therapy. Many people conduct their relationships unconsciously based on the unwritten rules of family relationships they learned as children.  It is hard to recognize these habits which were just part of "the air we were breathing".  Sometimes, people try to practice the opposite patterns which may create a swing too far the other way. 


There is an outdated and inaccurate idea that therapy is for people who are "weak" or "crazy".  In reality, therapy is useful for a wide range of issues including, and especially, for improving people's relationships.  I have often found that regardless of the initial issues people present in therapy that we inevitably focus most of our time on distress related to their relationships (with themselves and others). 


One could argue that everyone should have therapy to improve their physical health.  Therapy benefits people directly by providing a positive relationship.  It also teaches people experientially and through discussion and observation of their relationships, to have better relationships with others. A multitude of research indicates the factor which is most healing across issues and types of therapy is the power of the relationship (Norcross, 2002).  A good therapy will directly impact the emotional and physical well-being of the participant as well as increasing the participants' ability to have positive relationships with others.  So, exercise, eat well, and most of all, love.


References

Gielan, M. (2010). Positive Relationships. Lights, Camera, Happiness!

Lijewski, W. T. (2018) Healthy Living Psychology. Elite Continuing Education, Psychology (Illinois edition) pp. 16-30.

MacDonald, C. (2013). Health Psychology Center Presents: What is Health Psychology?