What turns emotional distress into real physical illness?
July 4, 2014 11:31 AM   Subscribe

I've read that for everyone emotional distress can lower immune function, but it seems that certain people are more susceptible to falling into illness when in distress. I feel I am one of those people. What makes some people more susceptible to this transfer from the emotional to the physical than others?

When I look over the years it seems apparent that emotional distress soon turns into a real physical illness. I had cancer more than once in my teens and 20's. And I kid you not that each time I got cancer it happened during a time where I was feeling very emotionally down about other things. The weird thing is that I would get into a stage where depression would completely remove my will to live and then a few month later I would get cancer and have to fight it which would give me some of that lost will.

For the past 3 weeks I had been feeling more depressed than I have in recent years due to an event that shook me. Ever since then I literally cannot get in a moving car without throwing up. I have to bring a baggie with me. I never suffered from motion sickness and this only started after this depression hit. But now for some reason I get in a car and my stomach starts spinning. After a day trip last week where I spent the entire 4 hour car ride to and from feeling nauseous and sometimes throwing up violently to the point I couldn't breath. I didn't even eat anything that entire day because I knew we'd be driving so I was throwing up plain stomach fluid and water. I said to my friend in the car "I don't know what's wrong with me. I can't possibly be pregnant." and he said, "You're not pregnant, you make yourself sick because you worry too much. When life gets hard you always end up in the hospital or at least sick in bed with a fever." I realized he's right- I do worry about things all the time. I lack peace of mind and looking back he is right that I've always gotten sick when my emotions are hard for me to deal with. I worry about not doing the responsible thing and letting people down. When I fail at something I feel like I fail not only myself but god and everyone around me. It's almost like I get so emotionally down due to certain events from my life that I lose the will to live and the body responds to that by attacking itself in some way. I know that sounds creepy, but looking back on things that's what it seems like. I would like to change this about myself, but I don't know where to start because I don't know what it is that makes me this way. I am an introvert by nature and perhaps introverts are more likely to be this way? Because introverts pull emotions inward instead of out? Maybe I should take up acting or something? Maybe people who get physically ill to this degree from emotional stuff just have crappier immune systems? I feel like there must be something different about me or the way I handle things that makes this happen. Any suggestions as to what I might be doing wrong and how I can fix this would be appreciated. I don't see why others can be depressed without puking all over the place while I can't seem to pull that off for long. Have there been any studies on this sort of thing?
posted by manderin to Human Relations (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to the current nausea issue, but regarding the cancer...it seems entirely plausible that the depression preceding it could actually have been an early manifestation of the physical illness later discovered. Sometimes when something is deeply wrong in our bodies, we can end up feeling emotionally cruddy long before we figure out there is something else going on.
posted by aecorwin at 11:42 AM on July 4, 2014 [26 favorites]

Basically, being in distress flips your body into "fight or flight" mode. It dumps a bunch of stress hormones in your system and gets you ready to fight a bear or run away from a snake. But being amped up all the time is like keeping the car's accelerator mashed down all the time: You're redlining and stressing your system because you're pushing it really, really hard when this is supposed to be a momentary thing.

*With that said* depression can be a symptom of a lot of physical illnesses rather than triggering them, so it's entirely possible you're depressed because you're sick rather than sick because you're depressed.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:09 PM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Stress tends to affect the production of hormones, notably steroids, which affect the body's metabolism, which can result in a cascading effect on the body.

In my case, work-related stress has resulted in the release of hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine) that increase blood pressure, speed heart rate, and raise blood sugar levels - I now have non-hereditary high blood pressure.

I don't think there is any research that definitively shows that stress results in cancer, but stress can cause unhealthy behaviours that result in cancer.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:10 PM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might find it interesting to read up about the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. I am guessing that your sympathetic nervous system gets into an arousal state and your parasympathetic nervous system fails to take over.

Basically, the sympathetic nervous system goes into action when we are in danger and under attack and in a state of stress and later when we manage to feel safe again the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and runs things for us. The sympathetic nervous system does things like inhibit your circulation which is good if you take an injury because you are less like to suffer severe blood loss. It also shuts your digestion down so that you don't waste resources on digesting food that you might need for running away or fighting. Your parasympathetic nervous system increases your circulation which is good when you are healing because the better your circulation the faster you heal and it needs to engage before your digestion works again properly.

Some people find it very hard to trigger their parasympathetic nervous system. It's just the same as how some babies are naturally easy to comfort and some babies don't seem to respond to anything you do. This is one of the physiological things that contribute to making someone an introvert. If someone has trouble getting their parasympathetic nervous system going they are likely to avoid stimulus.

So, how do you hit the switch that takes you from the tense, fight, freeze, flee reaction to feeling okay about the event that shook you so badly? That I don't know. You need to get into a position where you have moved past the event that shook you so badly. So for example if the reason you are upset is because of a violent crime, just hearing that the perpetrator was arrested could help you flip the switch from feeling under attack to feeling safe again.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:12 PM on July 4, 2014 [9 favorites]

In Psychosomatic Feminism, the author talks about "kindling", where you become increasingly susceptible to both the physical and psychological aspects of mental illness over time and exposure, kind of like with allergies where if you keep having an allergic reaction it can get more severe. She also talks a lot of the gastronomic aspects of depression and the stomach's feelings of discomfort and their connections to eating disorders.

I think part of it's on Google Books
posted by spunweb at 12:46 PM on July 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I can't say that this will fix this problem, but you might find that cognitive behavioral therapy can help you get a handle on your emotions so they don't feel so overwhelming to you. It sounds like that's a very stressful experience. Finding a therapist you click with might take a few tries, but when it works, it works.

If you feel averse to therapy for whatever reason, at least consider that getting on top of your emotions and controlling them so they don't control you might at least be a possible strategy.
posted by bleep at 12:56 PM on July 4, 2014

Two options to try out could be a daily mediation practice, and some form of artistic self expression. If your thoughts have turned to taking up acting it might just be something that will help, try an acting class and see how it works out for you.
posted by yohko at 1:23 PM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Louise Hay was a very popular 80s self-help author. I haven't read her books, but the link between emotional stress and distress and physical health is what I understand them to be about - check out You Can Heal Your Life and Heal Your Body.
posted by goo at 1:28 PM on July 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Never discount the power of the mind and its impact on our health. There's a reason why willpower sometimes makes the difference between living and succumbing to an illness. When our minds are so, so wrapped up in depression and other non-productive states of being, it makes sense (to me, anyway) that our overall health would suffer too. It's definitely true for me.

FWIW, my maternal grandmother was a Grade A, non-expressive worrier. When she got cancer, the doctors said it looked like her insides had been eaten up, it was all so full of holes and tumors. She later said that she felt that in being a depressive worrier, she had allowed her body to eat itself. She felt very firmly that she wished she had been more capable of letting things go. Obviously this is anecdotal, but it's something my family brings up a lot when we need a reminder to stay strong.
posted by Hermione Granger at 1:31 PM on July 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

"...and he said, "You're not pregnant, you make yourself sick because you worry too much. When life gets hard you always end up in the hospital or at least sick in bed with a fever." I realized he's right..."

No. No, he's not right, and this message is toxic. I don't think your emotions are making you sick, but I do think that your interpretation of the relationship between your emotions and your physical health is making you much more miserable than you need to be. Healthy people often rush to blame sick people for their sickness, because this lets the healthy people continue to feel safe, smug and superior. And sick people often accept this sort of explanation because it feels better to have even a shitty explanation than no explanation at all.

Your emotional state did not cause your cancer. Very possibly, at least some of your emotional distress was an early symptom of the illness which was already at work in your body. Or maybe you were just experiencing the same sort of chaotic emotional distress which is a normal, inevitable, even healthy part of human adolescense and young adulthood, and then you also happened to have the bum luck to get cancer.

Even the healthiest people have significant emotional distress; many people who experience serious and chronic illness have great serenity. Do not assume that, because you have physical symptoms and you also have emotional distress, it must be true that the emotional distress caused the illness. That's not impossible, but the causation might go the other way, or maybe you would have equivalent emotional turmoil even if your physical health were flawless. Step back and consider the possibility that your physical symptoms are not your fault.

You're not defective, just human. Humans often get sick, and it's really hard to feel good emotionally when your body is sick. So at about the same time that you notice that your body is sick, you also notice that your emotional state is really funky. It's natural that your pattern-seeking, guilt-prone human brain leads you to the conclusion that your emotional funk must have caused your ill health. You can't avoid all sickness, but you can mitigate the extra suffering of self-blame by quiestioning this thought pattern.
posted by Corvid at 2:00 PM on July 4, 2014 [35 favorites]

I'm so sorry you're not feeling well. It sounds like things have been very rough for you lately. Have you been to the doctor? There may well be an underlying physical condition that's causing your nausea. Even if it's your body's response to stress, it doesn't mean there's no underlying physical cause. If you haven't been checked out medically, I'd really encourage you to go.

Anyway, in answer to your question about the relationship between illness and stress: Dr. Gabor Maté has written about the connection between stress and serious physical illness in his book When The Body Says No. (Caveat: his approaches are not without controversy; some in the medical community agree with him, and some are very critical.)
In his latest book, When the Body Says No, [Maté] goes out on a medical limb with his passionately-argued thesis that certain types of chronic disease can be triggered by stress. And not the garden variety stress we usually think of (the job, the kids, the mortgage), but internal stress generated by the repression of powerful emotions, particularly anger.

In his many years as a palliative care physician, Maté observed in his dying patients certain eerie similarities in personality. Many of them were cheerful and agreeable to a fault, never seemed angry, placed everyone else's needs above their own, and were harshly critical with themselves. Their personal boundaries seemed fragile and uncertain, as if they did not know where they left off and others began. In many cases, it was nearly impossible for them to say "no," to the point that their bodies had to say it for them.
So Dr. Maté would say that illness may be your body's response to harsh self-criticism and excessive worries about "failing" others and "letting them down." I can see how this might be interpreted as blaming the victim, but to me it seems like he is actually saying that people with this kind of personality can try to alter their self-concept (not blame themselves for so much, learn to say no and set boundaries with others) in a way to help safeguard their own health. That seems useful, not blame-y. But YMMV of course.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:01 PM on July 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

I don't think there is any research that definitively shows that stress results in cancer

This is correct, there is no evidence that stress is linked to anyy kind of cancer at all. it's a very intuitive, "right-feeling" idea that this is the case, OP, but it is wholly without merit, though believed by many, and I feel it's a very destructive meme in cancer discourse that leaves people feeling guilty for their own personalities or unavoidable life situations. The biggest risk factor for cancer is simply age.

Stress can certainly affect your health, but the direct affects are limited to heart disease, stroke risk, things related to your vascular system and heart disease basically. There is also some evidence for stress affecting some metabolic issues (those pesky hormones!), the way your body processes and stores fat.

Any links to cancer can only be found in behaviours that stress induces, such as eating three sticks of salami because you're stressed, getting drunk all the time because you're stressed, etc.
posted by smoke at 4:21 PM on July 4, 2014 [12 favorites]

Therapy can help you from falling into that negative feedback spiral (you feel bad, you feel bad about feeling bad, which makes you feel worse, etc. until you throw up).

When you are feeling depressed or very stressed, try to make sure you eat well, drink regularly, and exercise occasionally. When I'm feeling bad I tend to let those things go, which makes me feel worse.
posted by flimflam at 6:31 PM on July 4, 2014

I don't know, there are a lot of studies that find early childhood adversity (poverty, neglect, abuse) may actually play a role.

"Such pathways justify a life course approach to understanding cancer aetiology, which may have its origins early in life."

However I want to make this really clear, the kind of "stress" they are talking about IS NOT about you choosing to be too stressed about things, or having a stressful schedule (although EXTREME stress and being over worked without adequate rest absolutely can contribute to disease). They are talking about extreme levels of exposures to unhealthy environmental variables without healthy periods where this is time for the body to repair and replenish, and abuse or fear situations that prevent the body from calming down and entering "rest and digest" periods during critical periods of development.

"Childhood adversity was associated with elevated markers of inflammation in breast cancer survivors, with potential negative implications for health and well-being. In particular, chaotic home environment showed unique links with inflammatory outcomes."

BUT I'm going to give you something positive: "This finding suggests that childhood adversity may affect social relationships and that high social support may attenuate the health risks caused by childhood adverse experience."

If your body is damaged from being subjected to harmful conditions, this is not really the same thing as working a heavy schedule or "over thinking".

Seriously I wish the idea that people who get diseases form trauma and maltreatment or poor environmental conditions are just "over stressing themselves" are being even FURTHER blamed for the harm that was done to them.

You mention god, and I'm an agnostic, I'm not at all convinced there is a god, however if you want to explore the relationship with god and your life/illness I would suggest trying some meditations from Maya Tiwari in her book "Ayurveda: A life of Balance". WITH the caveat that I actually think just world hypothesis are a very harmful assumption to make, because it assumes everyone who didn't heal from disease wasn't praying hard enough? Bullshit, I think even if there is a god, I am unsatisfied with this presumption about the divine.

HOWEVER if you kind of remove the karma/just world hypothesis out of her ideology, she does tell a powerful story about being told she had 6 months to live and walking into the realm of death, as she described it to escape the pain of her life. However she rekindled her hindu faith and decided she felt that entering the next life would only bring all the same issues back and even worse to deal with. She spent many months grieving and crying and facing the sexual abuse in her childhood and the life she had been living that was very hard on her body and emotions that she felt she had been neglecting to stay in touch with and care for.

I am not a hindu, and I'm not suggesting you read this to become hindu, (in fact I would argue on ethical grounds that every religion has it's own pathology) and health benefits may very well may be working through methods other than a "god" up in the sky setting up this messed up world this way. I'm mad at a god that would give people cancer to "guide" them, like seriously come on god, are you compassionate or not? WTF?" So yeah our beliefs matter and when people share their spiritual ideas about what they think the divine might be, it's important to ALWAYS remember they are just people guessing. But they may have some words of wisdom and some things of value to share all the same, even if they are wrong about some things.

I would also say that EMDR and somatic experiencing employ similar techniques to reach into deep rooted states in our body where there is still damage that hasn't been repaired and I have found them to be powerful techniques purely from my own experience.

I have found that when I looked into research about each of the recommendations I found in ayurveda I found that they matched up with science findings I found quite well. You might think much of what they say is common sense however the idea that these things have a big impact on our health is not actually that common sense. Many people don't realize these variables may literally be causing disease for them. So I would recommend reading more about these things, talk to doctors, learn some science and see if you can build a lifestyle that feels really supportive of your needs and promotes your health and well being.

And seriously, if there IS a god that gave you cancer as some life lesson I will punch that asshole. I think it quite likely/possible there is no god and these are simply techniques that help us tap into things deep within ourselves, which is also very valuable either way. (Hey I'm skeptic but hopeful there is a divine but if there were I'm hoping for a better answer than "Suffering is my gift to you because it's all part of your painful miserable path because I'm so compassionate like that!") That is just... ugh.
posted by xarnop at 7:20 PM on July 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

Also it's important to remember that ayruvedic lifestyle recommendations make sense for people who had ancestry from india and were living in the conditions there, the level of detail they put into it is likely wrong for specific people with different needs in a different environment and culture and more science would greatly expand the efficacy of employing the idea of addressing the full spectrum of environmental variables that effect our health and understanding the extremely complex interplay of variables of the past and present that interact with out biology. So I wouldn't get too hung up on things like"OH I must not eat night shades!"but rather focus on the concept of building an overall stable environment that you feel matches your needs.
posted by xarnop at 7:30 PM on July 4, 2014

I was diagnosed in my mid thirties with a genetic disorder. I had always been considered a "high strung" child. Getting a diagnosis made it possible for me to figure out how to get physically healthier. With getting physically healthier, I have become more emotionally stable.

That is not to dismiss your concerns. I think the impact can run both ways. But if you are looking for what you can do about it, there is a great deal of information available these days in books, blogs, and online forums and there are thousands of people pursuing something that sometimes gets called "bio hacking" -- tweaking their physiology, in essence, to address problems that previously were deemed not the kind of thing you could fix.

My sons and I have been able to track a lot of very specific emotional reactions to very specific physical causes. We have found that certain foods (or too much of certain foods) can wreak havoc with my physiology and have really bad emotional consequences and things like that. You might start by simply keeping a food diary, especially since your current issue gastrointestinal.

My sons were both prone to car sickness when they were little. We gave up the family car a few years ago. At some point, we concluded their car sickness was very much sickness and not just "motion sickness." We have reason to believe that one of the things they react to is off-gassing of materials the interior of the car is made from and also the fumes and the like from the engine. My oldest was leaving the house about once a month when we had a car. We gave up the car and he slowly began walking everywhere and getting healthier and stronger. I no longer have a driver's license and neither of my sons has ever had a driver's license. We are planning to continue mostly walking everywhere with occasional use of public transit. Cars literally make us sick.

I am not saying you should give up a car. I am just saying that it is entirely possible that your current physical reaction to being in a car is just that: A physical reaction, not due to your emotional state. I think it is no coincidence that the word "feel" is used both to describe physical sensation and emotional state. I think they are very strongly interrelated.
posted by Michele in California at 10:28 AM on July 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Smell is linked to memory formation in a more powerful way than your other senses. It could be possible that you're not just "overstressing", but reacting to powerful smell-linked emotional memories that you haven't brought to consciousness and resolved/integrated yet. It's quite possible that mere odors are what's triggering your body's sympathetic nervous system in some of these situations.

There are various breathing techniques that help activate the parasympathetic nervous system (deep abdominal breathing, for one), which is something you could practice... then [gently] try them out in situations that induce your typical over-active gut symptoms. Develop it as a skill, even, for pro-actively signalling your body to calm down. I learned deep abdominal breathing a couple years ago, and while it's not always the whole answer, I've noticed my body sometimes signals itself to do it now when a random stressor blips on the internal radar.

Also, to add to xarnop's wonderfully eloquent commentary above: Breathing techniques are a huge foundation for certain traditional Hindu spiritual approaches for devotees to manage their challenges with the human condition (and definitely no disagreement that Hinduism, as a religion, is no different than any other in terms of harboring various societal pathologies... funny how many the religions appear to function powerfully that way).
posted by human ecologist at 12:56 PM on July 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would like to change this about myself, but I don't know where to start because I don't know what it is that makes me this way.
Where to start? How about the next time you "fail" at something, be kind to yourself, have compassion for yourself and believe that god is always there for you. (Note: I am not religious.) I put "fail" in quotes because I think another step is to redefine what failure is for yourself. I don't know if introversion has anything to do with this. I think acting would be a great thing to take up, regardless of the reason.

Maybe people who get physically ill to this degree from emotional stuff just have crappier immune systems?
It could be a chicken-or-egg thing. Your immune system is weak to begin with, so stress affects you to a greater degree. Or the emotional stress is so strong that it manifests as physical symptoms.

Any suggestions as to what I might be doing wrong and how I can fix this would be appreciated.
Therapy. I know this gets thrown around askmefi a lot, but it sounds like you really need to talk to someone about this.

As for studies, here's one that links being abused as a child by a parent to getting cancer in adulthood. You may also be interested in reading Caronline Myss' books The Creation of Health and Why People Don't Heal and How They Can.
posted by foxjacket at 8:30 PM on July 5, 2014

Caroline Myss has some interesting things to say but she is also a big fan of the just world hypothesis view of health (sick people are making choices that cause their disease) when I really don't think that children die of diseases because of shitty choices they make, and even though we do have influence over our environment, we do not have the ability to make our environments match our needs unless we have access to both financial, environmental, and social resources that are simply not available to some people no matter how great their choices are. She makes some really derogatory comments about people who are less spiritually developed according to her, when I think some of the things she thinks were taught to her by "god" are not in any way shape or form "facts" about how the divine world works or why people get sick. She may have keen intuition about some things but I think she's pretty seriously wrong about others. (Her and Byron Katie. Wolves in sheeps clothing at time! Who wants to get rich claiming to know god/secrets of the universe better than everyone else?)

However since you're interested in how emotions and the body intersect there is a lot of unverified guessing out there and it may help to read some of that guesswork as you form your own opinions about it, but please counter some of that crap with science and explorations of how powerful cognitive bias toward just world hypothesis and other cognitive bias that repeatedly are found in studies to guide us into false conclusions about how others may have "caused" their conditions when that is factually not the case. Studying how environmental variables effect health and healing can also be eye opening because it calls forth the reality that a lot people are doing the best they can through the difficult variables they were born into and the understanding and skill sets and energy level they have available to work with. Just because a "spiritual writer" is good at writing what people want to hear and good at making the sale, doesn't make it accurate. We always need to sort through those claims.
posted by xarnop at 8:40 AM on July 6, 2014

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