In the 1600s, French philosopher Rene Descartes made the famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” He saw the human body as a machine, a standard set of parts that varied very little from one person to another.
In Descartes’ view, emotions played little if any part in curing illness or maintaining health.
Descartes had a lot of influence in his day, and modern medical thinking has grown out of his philosophy. Science has looked to the brain and the body to cure illness, but not to the heart.
The emotional heart, that is.
More and more, though, science has been making the connection between our emotions and our physical health.
Getting angry or frustrated often, or feeling sad or worried, could be taking a toll on your body.
We already know that anxiety and depression can cause physical problems. Chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis.
Now, there’s evidence that stress can have more far-reaching effects on your body than you might have imagined.
Bad moods cause inflammation and disease
In November 2018, specialists at Pennsylvania State University published a study that examined how our moods can affect our immune system.
In a nutshell, they found that negative moods cause inflammation, and positive moods are connected with lower levels of inflammation.
This may sound pretty basic. But when we consider the harm that chronic inflammation causes, this finding is quite significant.
A chronic state of inflammation in the body is directly associated with:
- and more.
Jennifer Graham-Engeland and her team assessed the emotional states of study participants with questionnaires. They also took blood samples and looked for markers of inflammation.
People who experienced several bad moods per day over several weeks had higher levels of those biomarkers in their blood.
On the other hand, those who experienced more positive moods had fewer indications of inflammation. (For some reason, this was only true of males).
Being depressed is just as bad as smoking
According to the World Health Organization, tobacco kills more than 7 million of us each year.
In 2015, more than four million people died from diseases related to their weight. Some of those people were not even obese, just overweight.
Not surprising, right?
Well, it turns out that anxiety and depression are just as dangerous.
Using data from the Health and Retirement Study, researchers from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California compared anxiety and depression to obesity and smoking in terms of health consequences.
Turns out Descartes was wrong.
Out of more than 15,000 subjects age 68 or older, those living with high levels of anxiety and depression were more likely to:
- Develop a heart condition (65% more likely)
- Have a stroke (64% more likely)
- Develop hypertension (50% more likely)
- Have arthritis (87% more likely)
The good news: we can change our moods
But there’s good news.
There are ways to alter our emotional state for the better that can be applied in real time and can lower the health risks involved with chronic anxiety or depression.
For many people, the first line of defense for chronic anxiety or depression is medication, usually SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). They are meant to regulate serotonin but actually put you at higher risk of premature death.
If you are presently taking an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication, we do NOT recommend you stop abruptly, or without your doctor’s advice.
But there are ways to feel better naturally.
- Your brain produces “natural opioids” that help elevate your mood. Exercise and other lifestyle changes will put those mood-altering chemicals to work for you.
- Getting enough quality sleep protects your brain from those “down” moods and makes you more resilient in response to difficult situations.
- Check to see if any medications you are taking may have mood changes as a possible side effect, and talk with your doctor about changes in dosage or alternatives.
- Yoga and meditation counteract depression when practiced consistently.
- A lack of a few crucial vitamins and minerals could also be the cause of depression or anxiety.
- How do our emotions affect our immune response? — Medical News Today
- Negative and positive affect as predictors of inflammation: Timing matters — Brain, Behavior, and Immunity
- How do anxiety and depression affect physical health? — Medical News Today
- Comparing anxiety and depression to obesity and smoking as predictors of major medical illnesses and somatic symptoms — American Psychological Association
- Descartes and modern medicine — Health and Everything