Living Primally is first and foremost about taking responsibility for your own health. Though we might not be able to control each and every facet of our lives and genetics, we have considerably more power than we think. Diet, exercise, sleep, sun, social connection, and play all figure centrally into our health. (If you’ve been with us at MDA for even a week, you’ve probably figured that out.) That said, there are also more nuanced facets to wellbeing – subtler influences and interactions that we might not consider each day. True, when we rein in the bad habits and rewire unhealthy patterns, we open the door for an unprecedented level of thriving. Some of us, however, carry other kinds of baggage burdensome enough to keep us from ultimately passing over the threshold. I’m talking about the emotional cargo we live with – the anger, resentment, repression, sadness, guilt, or inertia (to name a few) – and its inevitable toll on our physiological health.
A few months ago, Dr. Albert Fuchs wrote a post highlighting the role of guilt played in some of his patients’ symptoms. Many physicians, Fuchs explains, see people whose physical suffering has no apparent medical source – somatization in medical jargon. Their conditions, which range from insomnia to chest pain, are rooted in guilt. What these folks need, Fuchs argues, is emotional and spiritual “absolution,” not medical treatment.
Fuch’s observation is just the tip of the iceberg, I’d suggest. In recent years, studies have highlighted the role stress, emotions, and personality traits play in serious health risks. For example, research shows sadness increases our perception of pain. Anxiety increases our chance of heart attack. Stress heightens our risk for stroke. Depression raises levels of inflammation-promoting proteins and increases the accumulation of abdominal fat. Suppressing our feelings even suppresses our immune function!
Our emotions aren’t just intellectual configurations. They’re wholly visceral processes. Imagine the emotionally charged times when you’ve had sweaty palms, a tightened chest, muscle tension, a knotted stomach, constricted throat, or light-headedness. It’s all part of the inherent mind-body connection. Our emotions elicit biochemical signals that set in motion a chain of positive or negative physiological events that include or influence everything from blood pressure to blood viscosity, gastrointestinal function to pain perception.
We’re designed, of course, to experience (and recover quickly from) a wide range of emotions, but when we get stuck in a negative rut for too long, it exacts a physiological as well as psychological toll. Over time, our physical condition reflects our emotional state. The persistent physiological impact of our feelings becomes imbedded in our body itself – in skewed neurochemical patterns, inefficient systemic functioning, even epigenetic profiles.
Eastern medicine more readily acknowledges the nuances of our mind-body connection. Yoga, for one, attends to the physical tension we carry as manifestations of emotional strain. Within the strategic focus of poses and the centering of breath work, we can cultivate a physical and emotional sense of release. It’s a discipline that mirrors many other Eastern and alternative practices which appreciate either literally or metaphorically how our bodies and minds are inherently imbricated.
From an evolutionary standpoint, it also makes sense. The more we discover, the more we understand about the body’s and brain’s complementary operations in animals and in our own species. Emotions and emotional perception were part of the larger picture of survival. They spurred us to action or inaction that could save our hides when we were up against a predator or a hostile or helpful stranger. They fostered our successful interactions with kin and even our childhood caretakers.
Today, in a world much safer and more mentally detached from the imperative of the present, I think it’s easier to lose ourselves in emotional narratives (that destructive penchant for self-talk) that can extend and expand our pain beyond the actual situations that prompted them to begin with. How much of our emotional anguish is caused by an unfair or unfortunate scenario, and how much is caused by our unrelenting grip on it. Our negative emotion (e.g. anger, sadness, guilt) likely had at least some legitimate value when the circumstances occurred, but at what point does it spring not from the original event anymore but from our own self-destructive clinging?
From a personal standpoint, how many of us have lived for weeks if not months with our stomachs in knots over stress? How many have ever gone months or even years stressed by a negative relationship (be it partnership, friendship, family, or work) that caused chronic headaches, muscle tension, or other symptoms? (A literal as well as figurative pain in the neck?) How many have felt perpetually fatigued by the weight of resentment?
Hanging onto emotion after the fact, in its lesser forms, can hold us back from experiencing full thriving. In it’s worst manifestations, we let it cannibalize us. When we take responsibility for our health, we also take responsibility for our mental health and the self-talk that fuels (or constrains) our lives. It helps to cultivate a “let it go” approach to life and to let go of negative self-talk that sends us down a useless emotional path. Counselors commonly suggest patients who tend to fall into negative thought patterns nip the process in the bud by learning to identify the physical sensations that begin the downward spiral. Maybe it’s a flushed face, a head rush, or a queasy stomach. Staying attuned to our physical cues can be more effective for many people than trying to mentally police runaway thoughts.
However, taking responsibility also means being honest with ourselves about what we resist addressing in our lives. It calls us to make hard choices sometimes – to let go of friendships that aren’t serving us anymore, to take a risk moving on from a soul-sucking job, to either leave a relationship or commit to the hard (and mutual) work of reshaping it. It calls us to get real about the negative thoughts and patterns that lead us to self-sabotage our lives, actions that result in continual mental and physiological consequences. Responsibility for our wellbeing is undoubtedly life’s grandest opportunity, but it’s also our most profound accountability.
Thanks for reading today, everyone. How do you identify with or respond to the role emotions play in physical health? What advice, practices, or truths have you found meaningful in taking responsibility for your full wellbeing?