What Role Do Emotions Really Play In Our Health?


If I told you that your emotions are a major determinant of your physical health and wellbeing what is your brains immediate response? Do you accept that as a realistic statement? Do you accept it but maybe you think they are probably of a secondary level of importance to things like diet and genetics? Or do you think that it sounds somewhat ‘unscientific’ or wooh wooh ? 


Once upon a time I had a patient we’ll call Barry, because that’s his name… and I know he’s happy for me to share the story. Barry was tough, good natured rooster who had worked very very hard in a freezing works for over 35 years. 

Barry used to come to me every 3rd Tuesday without fail for some work on his stubborn right sided shoulder pain and an intermittent headache. Every time I treated Barry’s shoulder he felt immediate relief which generally lasted for between 2 & 4 weeks, which was why he settled on seeing me every 3rd week. We did this every 3rd week for the better part of 3 years. Barry was happy with this arrangement and resisted my protests for him to do rehab exercises and reduce his dependency on treatment, so we just happily muddled along. 

One specific Tuesday Barry came in with his normal shoulder pain and headache feeling. I did the exact same as I always did but when he got up from the bench he said he didn’t feel any better for the first time ever. I was surprised, slightly deflated and obviously reflected immediately on whether I had done anything wrong or different. I couldn’t identify anything I had done wrong so I just sent him away and told him to call me if he needed me. 

On Thursday of the same week Barry’s wife comes to see me for her mild sciatic complaint. First thing out of her mouth ‘What the hell have you done to my husband?’ Me.. ‘WHAT? Nothing different to what I always do for him’. It turned out Barry has had the worst shoulder pain and headaches of his life since 15 minutes after the treatment. 

The treatment that worked every single time without fail for 3 years had not only failed, it had made Barry worse. 

At this point I will cut a long story short. It turned out that Barry’s sister had died suddenly on the Monday before I treated him, he had of course been far too stoic to share that fact with me. 

The exact same treatment that dramatically improved Barry’s quality of life under normal emotional circumstances year in year out,  created havoc in Barry’s body under the emotional set point of grief. When I was able to re-examine Barry 3 days after that ‘failed treatment’ I found that he had developed some of the worst muscle spasm I have felt in a human neck. 

It took 6 more very gentle treatments over 3 consecutive weeks to get Barry back to normal once we had realised what had happened. This is a story about the power emotions have to influence the functions of the physical body. 

Man with depression that can lead to chronic pain image

Strong emotions can have a profound effect on the bodies ability to heal itself.

Emotions Under The Microscope 

Here’s an interesting fact. Western science has discovered that the physical chemicals of emotion exist so pervasively in life that they can even be found in single cell organisms. That’s right ‘amoeba have endorphin rushes too’, as a human you may not be anything like as special as you have been taught to think you are. 

What science has also discovered is that these chemicals of emotion are in fact a major driver of the bodies physical processes. This makes them an instrinsic part of how your body functions. 

The surfaces of your bodies cells are lined with a vast number of highly specific “receptors” to which reciprocal specific molecules can attach themselves. These molecules, in turn act as messengers through which the brain, neurons, glands, organs and immune cells, are all constantly sharing information with each other about what’s happening and what should be happening next. 

One of these specific ‘messenger substances’ that’s tell cells what to do are proteins known as peptides (endorphins are an example of a peptide). These emotion related peptides are among the body’s key “information substances”. These peptides of can affect your mind, your emotions, your immune system, your digestion and many other bodily functions simultaneously. In other words your feelings and emotions activate your bodies physical functions in ways that we are only beginning to understand. 

Pain and depression image.

Emotions are one of the cornerstones of our physical wellbeing.

Emotions Not Under The Microscope 

Meanwhile back in the non-microscopic world that you and I inhabit, we can easily observe many of the more obvious manifestations of this reality with no help from a microscope. 

If you have ever seen yourself or someone else get embarrassed and red cheeked you are seeing a big wave of cardiovascular activation triggered by the chemistry of emotion. If you have ever felt a knot in your gut because you are nervous about something, you are feeling your bodies tissues being activated by emotions. If you are unlucky enough to have a chronic condition like IBS you may have noticed that its severity is hugely influenced by the presence or absence of stress in your day to day life. These are just a few small examples. 

When it comes to my area of expertise, which is pain, the writing has been on the wall for the longest time. The number of people who turn up in my clinic seeking help with pain on the exact week they start a new job, go through a relationship break-up, struggle with a work deadline or exam study is great indeed. Whether you have headaches, sinus pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, back pain, hip pain, knee pain, ankle pain, foot pain or plantar fasciitis it doesn’t really matter… all pains can be activated by stress and emotional disturbances. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy & Closing Thoughts

Away from your personal observations and my clinical observations there are many strands of scientific data that serve highlight how emotions influence physical wellbeing. We now live in an age where ‘Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’ is a significant part of the international guidelines for managing back pain. The reason CBT is part of those whose guidelines is because it has been shown time and again (across numerous studies)  to have the ability to profoundly affect people’s stubborn pain conditions. To be clear, this is an example of us using emotional and psychological reprogramming to influence the pain associated with a very real physical complaint.. back pain. 

So my core message in this short article basically just a note of encouragement. I want to encourage you to consider, or at least not discount your emotions as a possible factor of significance in any pain or unwellness you may be struggling with. Partly because I want you to have the best possible chance of getting better, but also because it just makes good sense to do so in light of what we now know. 

The better we understand our health and what it’s made up of the better chance we have of maintaining it in the long run. 

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