Bitterness makes the heart grow sicker
Dr Monika Merkes
This opinion piece first appeared in The Conversation on 2 September 2011.
Maxims like turn that frown upside down may annoy you when ill-timed but it seems they have some evidence-based science behind them. A growing body of research shows that your state of mind may have a significant impact on your health and well-being.
The latest research to give credence to the link between state of mind and health is a recent study from Concordia University that has found constant bitterness can make a person ill. Holding on to bitterness can affect metabolism, immune response or organ function and lead to physical disease, researchers say.
What shapes health and illness?
Psychologists have for some time observed that personality traits such as anger, hostility or optimism are linked to longevity and physical illnesses and can impact the development and course of cardiovascular disease.
Intense life regrets have been linked with acute physical symptoms and chronic headaches have been associated with anger. Conversely, life satisfaction has been linked with reduced mortality risk.
In one longitudinal study, a group of young Catholic nuns were asked to write short, personal essays about their lives in the 1930s. More than 60 years later a group of researchers evaluated the essays for positive emotional content.
They found that the nuns who expressed the most positive emotions lived up to ten years longer than those who expressed the fewest.
Many factors influence health and illness: genetic make-up, individual behaviour, the social determinants of health (such as living and working conditions, housing, education, one’s place in the social hierarchy) and lifestyle.
And experts don’t yet agree about the extent to which each of these factors influences health.
Sir Michael Marmot, a former president of the British Medical Association, has argued that the social determinants of health have a much greater impact on health than individual behaviour.
But individuals may find it easier to change their own behaviour and moods than the physical and social environment in which they live.
The stress response
So what mechanisms link emotions and disease?
A real or perceived danger sets a range of physical responses in motion. The body mobilises its internal protections to prepare for defence or running away. This is commonly known as the “fight or flight” response and involves the activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
Some of the physiological changes triggered by the fight or flight response are:
•release of inflammatory hormones such as cortisol;
•increase in heart rate and blood pressure;
•diversion of blood from hand and feet to the large muscles to prepare for fighting or fleeing;
•slowing or stopping of digestion;
•mobilisation of glucose to sustain energy expenditure;
•increased perspiration to assist with keeping the body cool; and
•increase in platelet adhesiveness, which means the blood becomes “stickier” and is more able to stop bleeding.
After the (perceived) danger has passed, the body tries to return back to normal. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for recuperation and bringing the body back to a balanced state (homeostasis).
These physical stress responses, when activated appropriately and occasionally, are healthy and natural – the human species wouldn’t have survived without them.
They become problematic when stressful situations continue without giving the body a chance to calm down and return to homeostasis.
Chronic stress leads to exhaustion, weakens the immune system and is linked to numerous conditions such as anxiety, depression, headaches, back pain, abdominal pain, skin rashes and insomnia.
Is it all in the mind?
The “dangers” that affect us today and trigger the fight-or-flight response are usually of an emotional nature.
In most instances, we can’t run away or change the situation. But we can change the way we respond.
By and large, the danger that leads to the stress response is in the mind – imagination and anticipation of adverse events, rumination and exaggeration of what might happen. For most people, these trains of thought run on automatic pilot.
Feelings like anger, hostility, envy, bitterness and hate evoke the stress response. If these feelings are persistent, the body’s capability to stay healthy and fight off illness can become impaired.
Does that mean it’s your own fault if you become ill?
No, our behaviours and feelings are only part of the complex mix of genetic predisposition to illness, the physical and social environment, and individual behaviour that leads to illness.
And besides, a correlation or link established in health research does not equal causation.
On the other hand, why hold on to hostility or bitterness if letting go might improve your health? Letting go of prolonged negative feelings is likely to improve happiness and well-being.
Letting go of negative feelings is not the same as using positive affirmations. Positive self-statements may help some people but are know to make others feel worse.
Practices such as meditation, yoga and tai chi strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system and help the body attain homeostasis.
Mindfulness meditation, for instance, is an excellent way to practice letting go of unhelpful feelings and to learn to be less reactive to real and imaginary stressful events.
Holding on to toxic feelings can pollute health and well-being but there are ways to break free, let go, and give mind and body a rest. Who knows, you may soon find that you don’t have any frowns to turn upside down.
Dr Monika Merkes is and Honorary Associate at the Australian Institute for Primary Care & Ageing at La Trobe University