The Physiological Effects of Persistent Emotional Distress
It is normal to experience emotional distress brought on by the events and circumstances of everyday life. When this happens sporadically, it is not a problem—the body is resilient enough to fully recover from most transient stressors, emotional or otherwise. When emotional distress becomes chronic, though, it creates chronic physiological stress that can trigger disease, exacerbate existing conditions, and interfere with healing.
Chronic emotional distress can take the form of depression and despair, anxiety, social isolation, or hostility. Medical researcher Janice Kiecolt-Glaser has described how the chronic physiological stress that accompanies these states increases what is called allostatic load—cumulative strain on the body—and this in turn increases vulnerability to disease
Emotion in Context
Our genetics, epigenetics, and other factors can determine the specifics of our future illnesses and the age at which we will be struck down. Those who have exceptional genetics; who get good nutrition, ample sleep, and regular exercise; and who minimize their exposure to environmental toxins will have greater health and longevity, but no one is immune from the deleterious effects of persistent emotional upheaval.
When I was practicing psychotherapy with people living with chronic or life-threatening diseases, I observed that a large percentage of them (including myself) had survived childhoods involving an unusually high degree of emotional distress in their families of origin. I began to wonder if it was possible that over a period of many years, their emotional distress had actually created pathogenic (disease-causing) levels of physiological stress, which could have contributed to their autoimmune diseases, cancer, and other debilitating medical conditions. This led to my review of the published literature from refereed journals and books by experts in the field, the results of which will be described over time on this blog.
Of course, there are healthy adults who grew up in very dysfunctional families who do not succumb to early or midlife chronic illness. What do they tend to have in common? They eat, sleep, and exercise just the right amount, have good genes and supportive friends, and minimize their exposure to environmental toxins. But this disease-free result is exceptional. Among the clients with whom I worked, some had done everything right in terms of self-care, but long years of emotional distress were too much for them and they eventually developed some type of debilitating medical condition. Like those individuals, since the early 1970s when I was in my mid-twenties, I have done everything right in terms of nutrition, exercise, and sleep. Despite this, I live with several so-called “co-morbid” chronic conditions. What I neglected until recently, was engagement in inner environmental mastery through the types of behaviors advocated from time to time in this blog. Outwardly, I was very successful, but I was out of touch with my inner subjective experience. One of the factors that is strongly associated with wellness and well-being is the ability and willingness to live in full contact with our inner subjective experience.