When discussing health and healing, it’s easy to focus on things like diet and exercise. But we aren’t just physical beings—we are spiritual and emotional beings as well. In today’s podcast, I discuss how our emotions can affect our health and why focusing on emotional well-being may be a key part of the healing process.
In this episode we discuss:
- An ancient concept backed by modern research
- How do we define emotion?
- Can early trauma affect health later in life?
- Is there a separation between mind and body?
- My personal experience with emotions and healing
Chris Kresser: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. I’m Chris Kresser. Today, we’re going to answer a question from Pam. Let’s give it a listen.
Pam: I had a question after listening to your recent podcast on chronic fatigue and the underlying symptoms. What are your thoughts on emotional baggage, for lack of a better term, and its impact on attracting disease or allowing disease. I have a practitioner that I see that feels like your childhood scars and emotional issues that you’ve carried forward up to this point in life, and sometimes energetic ancestral imprints that have been left on you from previous relatives, can have an impact on your health. I was wondering if you had a thought about that, and if so, how you suggest going about rectifying those types of things.
Chris Kresser: Thanks so much for that question, Pam. It’s a really interesting topic, and the more I do this work, the more I feel that lifestyle, behavior, emotions, psychological, and even spiritual factors play a crucial role and sometimes maybe even a more important role than commonly recognized factors like diet, exercise, and sleep in determining our health.
Diet, exercise, and sleep are, of course, still very important and often the most important factors, but they are more obvious and they’re more likely to be scrutinized. In some ways, they’re easier to change. Maybe sleep is a little bit of an exception, but most people are able to make changes in their diet and even their physical activity routine without making significant changes to who they are as a person and making changes in other areas like social support, how we relate to ourselves and the world around us, or how we relate to other people. These can really require pretty deep investigation, they require a lot of awareness, and they’re not the kind of changes that can be easily made overnight. I think there’s a lot more focus on diet and exercise because they are certainly very important but also because they are areas where it’s a little bit easier for people to make quick changes.
What if the mind and body aren’t really separate?
An ancient concept backed by modern research
But the idea that emotions play a role in health and disease is very old. In traditional Chinese medicine, for example, they have organ systems and each of the organ systems is associated with a particular emotion. The kidneys are associated with fear, the liver system is associated with anger, the lungs are associated with anxiety, and the spleen is associated with pensiveness or over thinking. The idea is that too much of any of these emotions damages the respective organ system that is associated with that emotion. For example, you hear about students developing what’s called spleen qi deficiency in traditional Chinese medicine because they’re overusing their cognitive faculty, or perhaps someone that has a lot of unresolved anger develops a condition called liver qi stagnation.
Regardless of what you think about this traditional Chinese view, modern research has also uncovered a link between emotions and disease. This is primarily expressed in the scientific literature in terms of stress. But stress is a really general term that could include, of course, emotions like grief, anger, anxiety, frustration, and worry. Most people, if you just stop them on the street and you ask them if emotions contribute to health and disease, they would say “yes” without even thinking about it.
Most of us have had some personal experience that backs this up, whether we became ill after a particularly traumatic emotional event in our life or perhaps after taking care of an aging parent, a sick child, or something like that. Most of us have experienced this to some degree or another. If we think about the more modern scientific research, we know that, for example, caregivers tend to be a population that is extremely affected by stress, and when researchers want to study the impact of stress on human physiology, they will often study caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients because it is known that this population is just under extreme stress and the long-term effects of all of the emotional stress involved in caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is extreme and severe.
How do we define emotion?
But how does emotion really contribute to disease? To me, that’s one of the most interesting questions, and I think in order to answer it, we need to define what emotion really is. If you look in a dictionary, emotion is defined as a natural instinct of the mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others. That’s kind of a technical definition, but we can say unequivocally that emotions are associated with sensations in our body. Again, everybody knows this. It’s not something we need research to show, but there is plenty of research that does show it. In some cases, the emotion may precede the sensation that we feel in our body. For example, if you see a snake, you then feel fear and then you experience a whole bunch of sensations that are related to that fear—your heartbeat increases, your muscles tense so that you can run away or deal with the threat. Not surprisingly, some recent research has shown that we all have the same bodily sensations associated with particular feelings regardless of culture or language, and that makes sense because these emotions or sensations primarily evolved as survival mechanisms.
But in some cases, the sensation may actually precede the emotion and the thought. An example here might be that we show up at the office and a co-worker is wearing a strong scent or perfume that makes you feel ill, and you then initially feel that sensation of being unwell in the body, then you experience an emotion of anger, then a whole bunch of thoughts about how inconsiderate the co-worker is, and then more sensations and more emotions, etc. The reality is that the connection between sensations, emotions, and thought isn’t really linear in most cases, but the key point is that emotions can and do produce real psychological changes. If an emotion is chronic, for example, chronic sadness, fear, anxiety, or anger, then the sensations and thus the physiological effects of those emotions will also be experienced chronically in the body, and it’s really not difficult to understand how that could contribute to disease.
Can early trauma affect health later in life?
So, what about the idea that we store emotions and that they cause symptoms and illness later in our life? This definitely falls outside of our conventional understanding of the body, but that doesn’t mean we can rule it out. Based on what we just talked about so far, it’s at least plausible that strong emotions could produce a lasting response in the body, and there is some support for this in the literature. For example, we know that traumatic events that happen in utero or in early childhood can permanently downregulate the HPA axis and effect the production of hormones like cortisol for the rest of that child’s life. Something that happened when a baby was in the womb actually impacts hormone production for the rest of that baby’s life. You can talk about that in different ways, but the language that modern science uses to explain that doesn’t involve using terms like storing emotion or trauma in the body, but you could certainly look at it that way, as essentially an emotionally traumatic event that had lifelong impacts.
I think there may very well be other cases where somebody experiences a severe trauma early on, and that trauma affects the body in other ways that modern science doesn’t currently understand. Maybe that person develops a cancer later in life, maybe they develop an autoimmune disease, or maybe they develop some other condition, but it’s not clear to them or certainly to their doctor that the emotionally traumatic event that happened earlier in their life was a predisposing factor to them developing that condition.
Now, I should say at this point, I’m a little bit wary of any explanation that tries to oversimplify things. In the examples that I just used where people had an emotionally traumatic event that then manifested as a disease or a condition later in life, for every person that did have something like that, there could be people that had a traumatic event and didn’t manifest a disease like that later in life. We are very, very complex beings. There are multiple factors that affect our susceptibility to disease, including genetics, epigenetic expression, environmental factors like diet, physical activity, sleep, stress, and of course, emotions among many, many others that are both understood currently and have a lot of research behind them and others that are perhaps not as well understood.
Even if it is true that emotional experiences manifest in our body both in real time currently as we’re experiencing them and then possibly later on in life, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’ll always have the ability to identify those emotional traumas and release them unless we escape the influence of them through some kind of work, whatever that work may be. I’m not saying it’s not possible, it very well may be. I’m just a little bit of wary of explanations that make this too simple. Because in my experience, there are so many factors that affect these processes of health and disease, and some of those factors we have control over and some of them we don’t.
Is there a separation between mind and body?
Okay, there’s another interesting part of this to me, which is the relationship between modern science and our understanding of the body and emotions. I’m a big believer of modern sciences. Anyone who has been listening to this podcast and follows my work knows, but I hope I’ve also made it clear that I believe that modern science can’t explain everything, and in fact, it’s changing all the time.
Our current medical model is based on a philosophical underpinning of Cartesian dualism, which is the mechanistic view of the body as a sum of its individual parts, and it’s really not holistic in any way. However, modern physics has taught us that the parts that we perceived to be separate are in fact part of an interconnected whole of atoms and even subatomic particles. Even more strangely, these particles can exist simultaneously as both particles and waste. We could really go off on a tangent here and I love physics and quantum physics and I’m kind of a geek about this stuff. I like to read about in my spare time. But without going too deep on this, for those of us who are not aficionados of this topic, my point is that a medical model that is based not on Cartesian dualism but on a more current understanding of quantum physics would likely see no separation between thoughts, emotions, and the physical body because they’re all made of the same stuff.
We have this phrase that you see all the time, the “mind-body connection.” To a certain extent, I appreciate that we’re seeing more about this because it indicates at least an increasing awareness of the importance of what is meant by saying “mind-body connection” but even to use the term “mind-body connection” is misleading because it creates the idea that there’s a separate mind and a separate body that are then connected. I think that’s inaccurate and even kind of a dangerous way of looking at it. The traditional Chinese medical physicians knew this and they didn’t have an idea of the mind as being separate from the body. I mentioned earlier that they have different emotions and thought states that are associated with each organ system, so within that structure is a view of the mind, body, and emotions essentially being one, not separate and not even connected. To say that they’re connected really misses the point.
I think as our understanding of the nature of reality really is what we’re talking about here, which includes as the human body has changed and evolved, eventually our conception of medicine, health, and disease will change and evolve along with it. Unfortunately, that process turned out to take decades if not hundreds of years based on what we’ve seen historically. It could be a while, and it may not happen in our lifetime, but we can now look at all of what we understand about physics and matter including the matter that’s in our bodies, our thoughts and emotions, and see that there is a lot less distinction between these things than we might have previously thought.
All of this suggests that even though with our current conventional medical paradigm, we may not understand the mechanisms behind how emotion could contribute to disease. There is already, even within that paradigm, quite a lot of research that supports that connection. As our understanding of both the nature of reality and human nature evolves, I think medicine is going to look very different in a hundred years than it does today. It’s best to keep an open mind. I will say also anecdotally as a clinician, I have seen big transformations in patients when working with emotions in whatever modality they are working on them with, whether it’s a psychotherapist, in some cases, people using ethnobotany or plant medicine, and other methods to get in touch with emotions that they may not normally have access to. I’ve seen very big shifts and transformations in people that are taking the time to explore these aspects of health.
My personal experience with emotions and healing
Many of you may also know that this was also a big part of my own healing process. When I got sick, I spent the first few years really deeply exploring diet, herbs, supplements and all of the typical things that we think of when we become sick. But after doing that really extensively, leaving no stone unturned, as is my way, and not making the kind of progress that I was hoping to make, I began to consider other possibilities or other avenues of exploration. I actually ended up moving to Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, and living there for two years.
For those of you who are not aware of Esalen and its history, it’s a retreat center that’s focused on increasing awareness, spiritual and personal growth, and it’s got a very interesting and colorful history going back to the ’70s. There are a couple of books about it. It’s kind of a fascinating place, but I moved with there with the intention of really exploring the emotional and psychospiritual aspects of my illness, seeing if through doing that, I could make progress that I hadn’t made with just looking exclusively at the physical realm. Looking back on it now, I think all of that was important for me. Diet was a huge key as, of course, you know. A Paleo-type of diet was one of the big keys for me, but that emotional and psychospiritual work that I did at Esalen was also a very big key to my recovery, and my understanding of what was contributing to illness. The more I do the work that I do with patients, the more that I see that as an important part of the process for anybody that’s dealing with a chronic illness or anyone who wants to optimize their health.
Pam, thank you so much for asking this question. I think it’s really important to turn our attention to these aspects of health because they don’t get as much air time as they should especially for people who have already explored the finer points of diet and they’ve got their physical activity and their sleep dialed in, and they’re still experiencing illness. I think it’s really worth exploring the emotions, psychology, and even the spiritual roots of illness in an effort to expand our horizons and make progress that we may not be able to make purely by looking at the more commonly explored factors.
I hope this has been helpful and I would love to continue the discussion, so if you have any thoughts or ideas about this, head over to the website chriskresser.com and leave a comment on the blog post because it’s a really interesting topic and I would love to explore it further with you.
Okay. That’s it for now. Thanks everybody for listening. Please keep sending your questions in to chriskresser.com/podcastquestion and I will talk to you soon.