During the 1950s, psychologist Lawrence LeShan discovered that one way he could know his psychotherapy sessions with hospitalized patients were working was that the nursing staff would begin to complain about those patients—once deemed compliant, his most successful patients were now labeled “difficult” or “noncompliant.” Suddenly, for example, when a nurse entered to do a procedure the patient might say, “No, not right now!” As soon as these so-called difficult patients began to ask for what they wanted and say “no” to what they did not want, their health began to improve. The ability and willingness to request help is associated with better health even when the requested help never arrives. The degree to which these patients were labeled as noncompliant correlated with surprising improvements in their health. LeShan said: “It’s as if the immune system hears self-expression as an order to start fighting for that person.”
Psychologists used to believe that people who expressed the most negative emotions were the least healthy. But researcher Gary Schwartz at the University of Arizona demonstrated that the people most susceptible to cancer and other diseases are those people who are very distressed but report that they are fine. In other words, inauthenticity is not conducive to health. Dr. Schwartz and his colleague Dr. Larry Jamner interviewed 312 patients, all of whom were tested for immunocompetence along with a basic endocrine panel. The immune cell counts and immune function tests of those who repressed (unconsciously) or suppressed (consciously) their authentic feelings were dangerously low. Conversely, those who self-reported that they were experiencing high levels of emotional distress had better numbers and better-functioning immune systems than people who reported being fine when biomarkers such as cortisol and norepinephrine revealed they were not. In other words, emotional suppression & repression are immunosuppressive. Those who got defensive evidenced even more immunosuppression. The ones who expressed themselves most honestly and authentically had the best health outcomes.
Although emotional distress is immunosuppressive, denial of emotional distress is much worse. The immune system recovers rapidly from short-duration, authentically acknowledged emotional distress, but the effects of denial of feelings tend to be chronic, and therefore considerably more immunosuppressive.