This week I went through some highs and lows of emotion, which I noticed, at the time, had a significant impact on my physical self. One day my son left his brand new spiked running shoes and PE kit at the bus stop, and I was angry and upset. I spent an hour in immediate response mode, feeling very stressed and sweaty, whilst I took action to attempt to recover them. A few days later it turned up and I felt suddenly light, strong, and energetic. An hour later I heard about a man exposing himself outside my son’s primary school during playtime and felt nauseous, weak in the legs, and wobbly. My body’s reaction to how I felt was instant, then lasted a few hours, but I wondered what it would be like to feel the effects of either positive or negative emotions on a constant basis.
I think emotions, being strong feelings in the mind, are derived from our thoughts. If we can regulate our thoughts about events, change our perspective on our experience, then our feelings will moderate in response. Aiming to be optimistic, finding positive factors in difficult circumstances, and generally looking on the ‘brighter side of life’ greatly lifts your mood and, I think, your physical capacity.
There is evidence that optimistic people present a higher quality of life compared to those with low levels of optimism or pessimists.
Negative emotions in the long term may lead to chronic stress, causing the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of guardedness. When muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions of the body and promote stress-related disorders. For example, both tension-type headache and migraine headache are associated with chronic muscle tension in the area of the shoulders, neck and head.
Constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can also contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels. The persistent increase in heart rate, and elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body. This long-term on-going stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.
Hormones produced by the adrenal cortex during stressful events, including cortisol and epinephrine, prepare the body for an instant state of readiness in what is known as the classic “fight or flight” response.
Some researchers believe that chronically elevated cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, especially in the belly.
Repeated acute stress and persistent chronic stress may also contribute to inflammation in the circulatory system, particularly in the coronary arteries, and this is one pathway that is thought to tie stress to heart attack. It also appears that how a person responds to stress can affect cholesterol levels.
The risk for heart disease associated with stress appears to differ for women, depending on whether the woman is pre- or post-menopausal. Levels of oestrogen in pre-menopausal women appears to help blood vessels respond better during stress, thereby helping their bodies to better handle stress and protecting them against heart disease. Postmenopausal women lose this level of protection due to loss of oestrogen, therefore putting them at greater risk for the effects of stress on heart disease.
Although I am not suggesting we can easily change our emotional tendencies, I think for our health’s sake we can modify our thoughts towards positive thinking and receive the benefit of improved mood, lowered anxiety and healthier physical consequences. With practise and determination it is possible to take an outlook that emphasises the good in life events, release negativity and reap the rewards in our physical health as well as our mental health.