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Deadly EmotionsUnderstand The Mind-Body-Spirit Connection That Can Heal Or Destroy You
By Don Colbert
Thomas Nelson, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Don Colbert
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWHAT YOU FEEL EMOTIONALLY BECOMES HOW YOU FEEL PHYSICALLY
A friend of mine-in good health, I hasten to add-once said to me, "After my husband left me, I was heartbroken. I truly had meant my vows and I was ready to tough out just about anything: better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness or health. It never crossed my mind that I'd get worse, poor, and a husband who was emotionally sick all at once in the first two years of our marriage."
My friend continued, "Shortly after Todd left, my friend Ellen came to me and said something that I thought was strange. She said, 'Really take care of your health, Jess. Do the right things. Don't get sick.'
"Other people had come to me during that time to tell me I needed to get into therapy, pray more, laugh more, go out with friends more, join this club or that club, or do various other things to get over my heartache. Ellen came to me with words about my physical health and she caught me off guard.
"I asked, 'What do you mean?' She said, 'I know you're doing the right things mentally and emotionally. Just keep exercising and getting enough rest and eating the right things. You've got to build up your strength and energy.'
"I had to admit that she might be making a good point. In the weeks after the divorce, I found myself sleeping a lot-more than usual and maybe even more than necessary. I didn't seem to have as much strength or energy as I had enjoyed just a few months before. I pressed her further, 'Why are you saying this to me? What do you know that I need to know?' She said, 'Jess, I've seen a lot of people get sick after they get divorced.' I knew Ellen was a nurse. I asked, 'You see them in the hospital?' She replied, 'Or in the funeral home. I know of at least two dozen people who developed very serious diseases two to five years after their divorces. At least nine of those people have died.'
"Ellen got my attention," my friend Jess concluded. "I made a decision that very day that I was going to do everything in my power to stop wallowing in my heartache and to start building strength and energy. I started on a very serious health program of exercise, eating the right foods, and taking time to rest and have fun with friends. I also started on a serious program of spiritual renewal. I stayed well. In fact, I became stronger and more energetic and more productive than I was before my wedding."
Jess put into words what many physicians know intuitively. Through the years we physicians frequently see patients go through emotionally devastating experiences such as divorce, bankruptcy, or the death of a child-only to see those patients experience heart attacks, recurrences of cancer, autoimmune disease, or serious crippling or disabling conditions.
As physicians, however, the vast majority of us have been trained to separate emotions from physical disease. Our training teaches us that emotions are ... well, emotional. Diseases are strictly physical.
Increasingly, however, we are having to confront the fact that the body cannot differentiate between stress that physical factors cause and stress that emotional factors cause. Stress is stress. And the consequences of too much unmediated stress are the same regardless of the factors that led to a buildup.
HOW WAS YOUR YESTERDAY?
I recently asked a patient, "Describe what you experienced yesterday. Don't just tell me what you did, but who said what and who did what to you or with you."
Ben suffered from chronic migraine headaches but the main reason he came to me was because he had just learned he had very serious cardiovascular risk factors-his primary-care physician had told him that he was a "heart attack waiting to happen."
Here is a summary of what Ben shared with me:
He sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic going to work, which made him late for an important meeting even though he had left home earlier than usual.
He sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way home. His wife was upset when he arrived because the meal she had prepared was cold.
While in the car, he listened to a deejay on the radio who hosted a talk show for people who seemed especially angry or prone to argument.
He opened the mail to find an insufficient-funds notice related to his college-age daughter's checking account, and two past-due credit-card bills that he thought he had paid.
His teenage son arrived home sullen and sulking. It finally dawned on Ben that he had failed to show up for his son's baseball game yet again, even though Ben had promised his son he would be there. His son had hit a home run but didn't seem all that eager to share any details.
His ten-year-old daughter refused to do her homework. In picking up a pile of papers she had left out on the dining table, Ben found that on two of the spelling tests she had earned D grades.
A clerk had given him incorrect change and refused to admit his mistake.
He had stood in a "ten items or less" line for fifteen minutes because the cash register broke. All of the other lines in the store were even longer.
His wife was exhausted from a day of car trouble, an unpleasant encounter with their daughter's soccer coach, and a pile of laundry that she had to do so their son would have a clean uniform for the next day's game.
He had turned on the TV to try to unwind, only to hear reports about a serial killer loose in his city, the arrest of a corrupt county politician, and another loss on Wall Street that he knew meant a negative hit to his retirement fund.
The child living next door didn't seem to be able to practice his saxophone without squeaking. And there was no way he could face yet another encounter with the child's father, who refused to shut the child's bedroom window.
When Ben finished his litany of "yesterday," I realized that I was feeling more tense than when Ben had walked into my office! I could only imagine how much tension had built up in him after living through such a day.
"Was this a pretty typical day?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "Actually it was easier than most days. I thought it was a pretty good one."
"Don't you feel stressed-out?" I asked.
"Oh, sure," he said. "But doesn't everybody?"
"Not everybody," I said. "But just about everybody. The goal here is to help you not be like 'everybody.'"
Ben, unfortunately, is the norm in our culture. According to the American Institute of Stress, between 75 and 90 percent of all visits to primary-care physicians result from stress-related disorders. But the treatment for stress is usually very superficial, medically speaking.
PULLING OUT THE WEED BY ITS ROOTS
Most of us have done our share of Saturday morning mowing and weeding. We have learned that it doesn't pay just to snap off the top of a dandelion or a clump of crabgrass. To do so seems to ensure another bountiful crop of these annoying weeds.
When it comes to treating certain physical symptoms, we often just take off the top of the symptom. We do what we can to get rid of the immediate pain or to settle the immediate upset stomach. The problem comes back ... we take the pills or liquid or powdery medication once again ... the problem comes back ... we take another round of treatment ... and so forth, week after week, month after month, year after year.
That's the usual approach. The first outcropping of stress tends to be in the form of tension headaches, digestive-tract problems (stomach, intestines, bowels), and skin eruptions. These conditions, of course, just add another layer of stress.
If we don't treat the core stress, the symptoms may become chronic. New, deeper symptoms can also arise: sleeplessness; weight loss or gain; muscle aches, especially back and leg pain; general lethargy or feelings of exhaustion; sluggish thinking; and lack of get-up-and-go or ambition. Our general response seems to be to pop a few more pills, try another diet, exercise for a few days and then give up, and berate ourselves not only for our lack of fitness and health but for our inability to stick with a good health program. All the while, we've added yet another layer of stressors to the mix.
If we continue to ignore the core stress, the symptoms can become outright disease-the kinds that require surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, heavy-duty medications, and other serious treatment protocols. Each of these treatments, of course, is also a stress-producer! So is the diagnosis of a major life-altering or life-shortening disease.
Stress upon stress upon stress upon stress; and all the while, the body doesn't differentiate what caused the stress in the first place:
The little arguments and sniping that led to full-blown marital disagreement
The constant inhaling of toxic chemicals at the factory
The increasingly frequent nightmares of abusive experiences in early childhood
The inhaling or ingestion of carcinogenic substances over time
The nearly constant feelings of frustration at the ineptness and stupidity of just about everybody encountered in life
The decades of eating chemically laden luncheon meats and hydrogenated fats
The flashback memories of horrific accidents or war scenes
The inability ever to get on top of the deadlines related to an overbooked schedule and overloaded job description
No, the body doesn't know or care what caused the stress. All the body knows is that it is experiencing stress.
STRESS, STRESS, AND MORE STRESS
Stress is mental or physical tension, strain, or pressure. I like the spin stress researchers and authors Doc Childre and Howard Martin give this definition:
Stress is the body and mind's response to any pressure that disrupts their normal balance. It occurs when our perceptions of events don't meet our expectations and we don't manage our reaction to the disappointment. Stress-that unmanaged reaction-expresses itself as resistance, tension, strain, or frustration, throwing off our physiological and psychological equilibrium and keeping us out of sync. If our equilibrium is disturbed for long, the stress becomes disabling. We fade from overload, feel emotionally shut down, and eventually get sick.
Stress reactions are the ways in which our bodies process and release both the emotions and the negative physical elements we experience in life.
Dr. Candace Pert, a stress-research pioneer, has said, "In the beginning of my work, I matter-of-factly presumed that emotions were in the head or the brain. Now I would say they are really in the body."
No person experiences an emotion just in his "heart" or in his "mind." Rather, a person experiences an emotion in the form of chemical reactions in the body and the brain. These chemical reactions occur at both the organ level-stomach, heart, large muscles, and so forth-and at the cellular level.
THE SCIENTIFIC LINK GROWS STRONGER
Through the years, the scientific studies linking the emotions and disease have produced an impressive body of research, all of which points to the conclusion that what we feel as emotions results in how we feel physically. Let me share just a few highlights from research in the last fifteen years:
In a ten-year study, individuals who could not manage their emotional stress had a 40 percent higher death rate than nonstressed individuals.
A Harvard Medical School study of 1,623 heart-attack survivors concluded that anger brought on by emotional conflicts doubled the risk of subsequent heart attacks compared to those who remained calm.
The Harvard School of Public Health conducted a twenty-year study that involved more than seventeen hundred older men. The study found that the men who worried about social conditions, health, and personal finances had a significantly increased risk of coronary heart disease.
A study of 202 professional women found that tension between career and personal commitment to spouse, children, and friends was a factor associated with heart disease in women.
An international study of 2,829 people between the ages of fifty-five and eighty-five found that individuals who reported the highest levels of personal "mastery"-feelings of control over life events-had a nearly 60 percent lower risk of death compared with those who felt relatively helpless in the face of life's challenges.
A heart disease study at the Mayo Clinic found that psychological stress was the strongest predictor of future cardiac events, including cardiac death, cardiac arrest, and heart attack.
Just how does emotion produce a physical manifestation? We turn there next.
Excerpted from Deadly Emotions by Don Colbert Copyright © 2003 by Don Colbert. Excerpted by permission.
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