Today’s article focuses on a discovery important to anyone who wants to stay healthy and live long and well: If we deny and avoid our emotional pain, we run the risk of living small and becoming physically ill.
The basis of this discovery is the research showing that our mind and the body are not two separate things — they are an interdependent unit. What we think and feel shows up in our body, and what goes on in our body shows up in what we think and feel.
This fact has been known to the medical psychology and behavioral medicine communities for some time. But unfortunately, the relationship between our psychology and our health and well-being remains unknown to many.
Research has shown that people who cannot or will not allow themselves to experience and express their emotional pain tend to be at increased risk for anxiety and depression and for serious illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer.
We have trouble feeling our pain and expressing it to others because most of us feel a loss of self-esteem in doing so. Many of us have bought into false notions about what it means to be a healthy, attractive and strong person. The fictional idealization of the “hero” looms large in our society. Its basic premise is that negative feelings and pain are a sign of weakness. And that keeping a “stiff upper lip” and “toughing it out” are signs of maturity, character and strength.
This is nonsense. Nature seems to be arguing that nothing could be further from the truth. The idealized hero fiction can be dangerous if we take it too seriously. Optimal levels of health and real strength and character demand that we be able to be where we actually are. It takes a lot of courage, as well as friendship and generosity toward ourselves, to be with the truth of what we are feeling.
Too often, we experience shame and self-doubt if we feel sad, depressed, lonely or frightened. Those of us who deny or avoid any negative feelings at all are at the greatest risk for a troubled life and health problems. We need to learn how to be open to what we are feeling without fear or threat.
Consider this: Our immune system, whose job it is to protect us from disease, becomes weakened when we try to cover up our distress and pain. Studies at Southern Methodist University have shown that individuals who were encouraged and supported to express their emotions associated with traumatic experiences, demonstrated an improved immune system function. These people had less of a need to visit their physicians than did those who did not have the opportunity to express their feelings.
This finding supports many others that have shown that people who participate in psychotherapy have less of a need for medical services. Unfortunately, too often, those who could benefit from therapy the most tend to avoid it because of their powerful fear of connecting to their feelings and giving voice to them.
A study done at Adelphi University showed that people who denied their emotional distress had double the “flux” in their blood pressure and heart rates than did those who could acknowledge their pain and discomfort. Because such flux can contribute to coronary artery disease, those who deny their emotions have a greater risk of cardiovascular illness.
If expressing feelings directly was taboo in our families, we can have a difficult time in being open to our emotional life. We all tend to internalize the rules that were part of our childhood family systems. These rules have a life of their own, and, although appropriate to our past, they continue to govern our present. It takes effort to become free from these family programs. But it is an effort worth making, and it’s not that hard to do — if we’re hungry to be free.
Problems and illnesses that run in families are not just caused by inherited biological predispositions. Family-linked illnesses can be related to a shared style of handling emotional pain and distress through denial and avoidance. If this is the case for us, then it is important that we try not to pass this style along to our children.
Although it is difficult to change our ways of handling what we feel, it can be done. Like anything else, we have to learn what to do and then practice doing it. In time, what we have practiced will become a natural part of who we are, and then our lives can be better for it.
With the right knowledge and tools, we can learn to relate to our thoughts and feelings skillfully. When we do, we can live with less stress and greater awareness and self-assurance — a solid foundation for a long, well-lived life.
Dr. Jim Manganiello is a clinical psychologist and diplomate-level medical psychotherapist based in Groveland and West Boxford. He is also an author and teacher focusing on stress, personal growth, meditation and “inner fitness.” His book “Unshakable Certainty” is available on Amazon. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.drjimmanganiello.com.