Personality, emotions, and health
Psychological factors are involved in causing and in healing many
ailments of the body. We are just discovering these connections
scientifically, although Chinese medicine was based on this idea 3000
years ago. A public television series and a book by Bill Moyers (1992),
Healing and The Mind, document in an interesting way the new
mind/body methods of treating pain, stress, cancer (at least the
emotional aspects of having cancer), etc. The impact of our emotions
on our physical health is called Mind-Body medicine (Siegel, 1989). We
are just beginning to learn about emotions influencing our body, e.g.
sexually abused women develop a smaller hippocampus (which is
involved in memory). Psychotherapy and self-help, if effective,
produce physical changes... we may not know where the changes are
but there are no ghosts in the body.
What does "no ghosts in the body" mean? It means that real,
physical events carry out or mediate these mind-body connections.
Most scientists believe that no thought, no feeling, and no mental
change ever occurs without something physical changing in the body.
For example, when long-term stress weakens an organ in the body,
like the heart, the stress is physically present for months in some form
in the brain, in the general nervous system, and in the weakened
organ. Likewise, when a discussion in therapy or use of a self-help
method improves some physical condition, the change mechanism
between talk (or method) and the illness takes place physically
somewhere in the body--nerves associated with thoughts change in
the brain, messages are sent in the nervous system, conditions of the
muscles change, hormones flow, the immune system activates or
shuts down, etc. There is no mystical magic here. It may seem like
magic to you when you are able to influence your thoughts, i.e.
neuronal action, which in turn may affect our feelings, then your
physical health, then your psychological health, etc. But every action
has a physical component (no ghosts) and is lawful and potentially
In case you are thinking that psychological factors are a minor part
of "medicine" or health care as we currently know it, consider this: the
seven top health risks are behavioral--smoking, over-eating, drinking
& drugging, injuries, suicide, violence and sexually transmitted
diseases. Seven of the nine leading causes of death, such as auto
accidents, have important behavioral components. Health is a
complex matter and the current professionals on both sides are ill
prepared to understand both mental and physical health. Changes are
needed! Perhaps we need a new profession that understands both
psychological/relationship problems and physical illnesses. Perhaps we
need to automate the initial psychological/medical diagnostic
evaluation, so that everyone can easily get an annual check up.
Perhaps everyone also needs to educate themselves so that self-
diagnosis and self-care is much more thorough and effective.