If you suffer from symptoms such as headaches, shortness of breath, chest pain or weight gain, your initial thought is probably not “I should evaluate my emotional health”. But in fact, our emotions have significant effects on our physical body. Psychological studies prove that our minds and our bodies are intimately connected. Therefore, good mental health can improve physical health and poor emotional health can cause a decline in physical health.
As a family physician, I would estimate that about two-thirds of my office visits are partly due to stress-related symptoms. What’s more, I have noticed that my patients with physical symptoms caused by stress-related issues almost universally have an extremely difficult time accepting that the root cause of the problem is mentally related.
For example, I have had numerous patients experience chest pain that, despite repeated testing, does not have a physical identifiable cause. Even with multiple visits to the emergency room, EKG’s, lab work and other testing, no cause for the chest pain is found. When I ask them about stress, 99% of the time they are anxious, depressed, or going through an extremely difficult time in their life. Yet generally these patients are reluctant to accept that the stress, worry and anxiety in their life are causing their physical symptoms. It often takes multiple visits, numerous tests and a lot time in discussion on how mental health can cause real physical symptoms. This phenomenon is called somatization – an unconscious process through which psychological distress is converted to physical symptoms.
What we don’t hear very often is that stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: 1) heart disease 2) cancer 3) lung disease 4) strokes 5) accidents and 6) Alzheimer’s. This is partly because the body does not distinguish between physical and psychological stress. Research shows that those who repress their emotions suffer more physically. One specific study shows that cancer patients who chronically avoid expressing their feelings die sooner and in greater numbers than those who freely express their emotions. The ways in which emotions are managed is one of the most relevant but least examined issues in medicine today. Despite all the evidence, unfortunately annual physical exams generally do not include an adequate assessment of emotional and mental health.
But, there is good news! You can take control of both your mental and physical wellbeing. The first step is to recognize the warning signs in order to prevent poor emotional and physical health. Symptoms such as memory problems, diarrhea or constipation, frequent colds, loss of sex drive, inability to concentrate and others could be a warning sign of poor emotional health. Once you recognize these symptoms, spend time reflecting on whether your emotional state could be contributing to these symptoms. Then, seek help from a medical professional, either a counselor or your physician. It is important that you express to your healthcare professional all of your symptoms including your emotional state. With ample insight into your overall health, you will assist your healthcare professional in properly diagnosing and treating you.