Emotions. Intrinsically woven into our lives, they are part of the human experience. As with many things, they can be used for good or for ill. When our emotional life gets stuck, then it can be a cause for more serious issues.
In this article on the Five Factors that stimulate, and over-stimulate our immune systems, we discuss what I think of as the Fourth Factor: “Emotional Toxicity”. More than just acute emotional stress, emotional toxicities are the things in our memory and the story of our life that become a source of chronic and long-term discomfort. They also serve as low grade immune system stimulation and inflammation.
Linking Emotional Stress and Immunity
The link between emotional stress and our immune system is something I learned in my years working in hospital systems. I frequently saw patients demonstrating this stress connection and worked to bring attention to it. For example, studies with soldiers in combat show significant negative impacts on immune system function as a result of the stresses of war. Although this impact could clearly be seen, it’s taken a long time for the modern medical system to address the issue in a dynamic way. I say “dynamic” because this level of emotional stress requires more than medication to be cleared. Without exploring the deeper impact of the stress, then the emotions get buried and stuck. From there you can forge a cause for ongoing challenges.
The negative impacts of acute stress on people with autoimmune challenges is apparent to any primary care physician. If you ask any physician in active practice about a link between the mind and the body, they will likely tell you stories of people with various autoimmune diseases in remission who saw their disease become active again as a consequence of stresses in their lives. Part of this recurrence can stem from an older trauma or stress that’s unresolved. The new stress just triggers the old. It may seem like the new activity is out of the blue but in fact it’s just the old trauma being stirred.
As we’ve explored so far, several factors effect the overall autoimmune condition. Even if there is no older stress or trauma present, the person may still be managing a delicate balance with their illness. With one or two factors off they can quickly find their symptoms returning.
To demonstrate this link to stress, here are some examples I’ve seen in my own practice over the years:
- A woman with lupus, which was in complete remission for five years, had a significant flareup of her disease the month after her child was in a major car accident.
- A man with multiple sclerosis in remission sees disease return in the months following a messy divorce.
- A man with Crohn’s disease that he had put into complete remission, with changes to his diet and lifestyle, sees his disease come back with a vengeance after his house burns down.
- A woman with autoimmune thyroid disease, gone for over 20 years, sees it return after she unexpectedly loses her job.
I could go on and on. And it’s not just emotional stressors. Severe physical stress like trauma, severe infection, even a bad case of flu or enteritis can lead to return of symptoms for someone with an autoimmune challenge. This is what I mean about this balance of the factors. Change happens all the time. On occasion it happens in massive amounts. If you are someone with these issues, and major changes are happening around you, it’s a good time to be proactive and strengthen the parts of your routine you know help you stay balanced.
I say this because it’s common during stress to put aside the things that normally support you. Maybe it helped you to exercise everyday. A major change comes along and you stop exercising all together. This key part of your foundation stops and it leaves you open to being impacted strongly from the emotional stressor. Building awareness and being proactive in the long run will serve you well.
Working with the Challenging Memories
Memories from the story of our life I mentioned earlier can also be just as corrosive to our health as the stress from an acute shock or loss. We all have memories of disappointment, dissatisfaction and loss. Some of us have had the experience of betrayal, trauma and abuse. These memories become so woven into the fabric of our life that we lose sight of the fact that they still carry a charge, and are a chronic source of stress. Even if we do see the reality of our corrosive memories, we may feel we need to accept them as a fact in our life that will never change.
So what do we do?
We cannot lose our memories and we would not want to. Our stories are what shaped us and made us who we are, and so we honor them. Some people try and bury unpleasant memories, but this rarely works in the long-term. There is a quote attributed to the doctor and psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung that says, “The things we do not remember revisit us as destiny”. In other words, the memories we try to stuff and suppress eventually come back to bite us.
What does “destiny” look like? For the sake of this article destiny can look like a physical disease. And to unwind yourself out of disease, and back to health, it is necessary to remember and hold the whole of the story of your life. So first we must be willing to develop awareness of our story, especially the difficult times. We must be willing to acknowledge the traumas so that we see them in the light of day. They may be ugly, but out in the open gives you influence over them.
But what do you do with those memories? How do you hold the charged memories of a parent, an ex-spouse, an old boss, a cheating business partner, an abuser, etc.?
You forgive. Let’s be clear here. When I say forgiveness I am talking about you letting go of the charge you hold about the memory. It’s said that holding a grudge against another is like drinking poison and hoping it will harm the other person. You forgive to help yourself. Your forgiving does not excuse the actions of the other person. Forgiving removes a load from you. And if you have an autoimmune challenge, forgiving can be an important part of your healing.
Essential to all of this becomes the ability to express these stories to others. You need witnessing here. Having others, whether loved ones or even a support group, hear your story and challenges usually holds a profound experience. You move the issue from something secret to something of awareness. You may also find that the ones you share it with understand better than you think what you go through.
After all gathering to share the story of an experience is part of our nature. We know it in our bones, because our ancestors did it. Yet when we hold the story only to ourselves it generally becomes heavy to carry. This weight is often toxic and holding it can not only impact you but others in your family and community. Sharing it eases the weight. This does not mean it vanishes. A trauma or challenging memory will be part of our experience. Yet letting it go means you can move freely again.
So to review this process again: Cultivate awareness of the story, be able to find forgiveness and share with others. Easy right? I know it’s harder than that. But I also know that the more you do this, the easier it does get. When you do you make bold steps for your wellness and your health.
This topic of “emotional toxicity” is a big topic. Forgiving and the role it plays in your healing is another big topic. We will revisit these topics in the near future to try and dig into them more.
In the meantime we invite your questions, your comments and the stories from your own life. You never know how they might benefit another.
Coming up we will cover the fifth and final factor: Environmental Allergens.
Until then – To You Health.
Image courtesy of © Can Stock Photo Inc. / rfcansole