Since writing my last post about my “white coat syndrome,” which has to do with hidden anxiety as manifested by high blood pressure, I’ve thought a lot more about the mind-body connection. And I have a theory: our authentic emotions, whether we’re aware of them or not, have as much to do with our health as any other factor.
We can eat healthy, low-calorie foods at every meal; yet, if while we eat we’re feeling anxious about something we’ve said or worried about something outside our control, or if we’re feeling sad, hurt, or angry, our emotional pain will have as much to do with our blood pressure, and therefore our physical health, as what we’re eating, our genetic inheritance, or how much exercise we get.
I know. This is not a scientific study. I’m my only subject, and my blood pressure is the only objective measure. But I’m telling you this: when I feel emotionally uncomfortable my blood pressure goes up. When I’m in an emotionally good place, doing something I love and am good at, it goes down. This is simply the way it is with me.
For social reasons my parents taught me to repress emotions they considered negative: self-pity, anger, frustration, impatience, criticism, judgment of others, pride in my accomplishments (“Don’t get a big head!”), enjoyment of my body’s skills (“Don’t show off!”), and so on. My mother’s favorite saying was, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Apparently her thinking was that if I didn’t express or act on a negative emotion, it wasn’t real and couldn’t hurt me or anybody else.
My education taught me to trust left-brained objective and logical thinking, things like my knowledge and test scores, not what felt important and meaningful to me. To believe accepted theories, not inner realities. To conform with social norms and ignore the gut feeling when something felt wrong. I was convinced my parents and teachers knew better than me, so I duly de-valued and ignored my emotional self, believing that at worst it was evidence of a terrible flaw, and at the least, unimportant.
I was wrong. My blood pressure confirms it. Emotions are the body’s natural expressions of our instinctual, archetypal selves. If we’re hungry we feel anxious or irritable. If we see blood we feel fear. If someone says something mean to us we feel hurt or angry. If an object of our affection rejects us for another we feel jealousy and pain. If someone thwarts our desire we resent them. When someone dies we feel sad. These are powerful physical realities that every human experiences and there’s nothing wrong with them.
The ugliest emotion we can feel is as worthy of our attention as the noblest. This doesn’t mean we need to express or act on it, but it does mean that knowing what we feel and where the feeling comes from is good for us. And it means that engaging in practices that reduce the strength of unhealthy emotions and replace them with healthy ones—like acceptance, gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion for ourselves and others—is essential to the healthy functioning of our bodies and souls and has everything to do with the quality of our lives. As Deepak Chopra says: “It is up to you to keep the messages that course through your body positive instead of negative. No other duty in life is as important or vital to your health and well-being.”
The latest data: When I returned home today after the funeral of a friend, my pressure was 130/83. After finishing this post two hours later it was 115/78.
First image credit: Feeling sad and lonely by ppawelczak of deviantART