Jeannie Herman, LPC, NCC
The Biology of Psychosomatic Illness
Updated: Jan 15, 2020
Why is it important to work through painful emotions related to past and current traumas and childhood abuse and neglect? Why not “let go of the past and get over it”? Is it more empowering to just accept what happened, forget about it, and move on? These can be useful temporary coping mechanisms, but if they are used as long term responses to painful and traumatic experiences and feeling they can cause problems. These problems include psychosomatic/stress illness, the repetition of unhealthy patterns, and addictive behaviors.
Many, if not most illnesses are caused by or related to unprocessed emotions. Peptides, which include neurotransmitters, are strands of amino acids that act as messengers throughout our bodies. The cells in our bodies have receptors that are able to allow specific peptides to affect them. For example, the neurotransmitter serotonin binds to certain receptors and is associated with feelings of happiness.
Many antidepressants do their job by increasing the amount of serotonin that is available to serotonin receptors thereby decreasing depressive symptoms. Until recently, many people believed that certain neurotransmitters only have receptors in the brain. However, peptides, including neurotransmitters, have been found binding to cells throughout the body including our immune cells. The nervous system in our gut uses more than 30 neurotransmitters (which is similar in our brain) and 95 percent of the serotonin in our bodies is found in the bowels. (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gut-second-brain/). Interestingly, “90 percent of the fibers in the primary visceral nerve, the vagus, carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around.”
Viruses enter cells through the same receptors that peptides use to enter the cell and cause disease (Pert, 1997). The rheovirus, which is associated with viral colds, enters the cell through the norepinephrine receptor. Norepinephrine is a peptide that has been shown to flow at an increased rate when a person is feeling joy. When there is an increased amount of norepinephrine the rheovirus has less of a chance of entering the cell because the norepinephrine will be blocking the receptor that the virus enters the cell through. This indicates that the happier a person in the less likely they are to become sick with this virus. According to Candace Pert, Research Professor of Physiology and Biophysics at Goergetown University Medical Center, the key to allowing our peptides to flow healthfully is to acknowledge, express, and in some situations let go our emotions.
This is not limited to “positive” emotions; it includes emotions such as anger, rage, fear, sadness and so on. Research has shown that cancer patients who were more emotionally expressive had quicker recovery rates than patients who were unable to accept or express feelings such as anger (Temoshok & Dreher, 1992). The patients with slower recovery rates were also more likely to be less aware of their emotional needs and have a common trait of self-denial. Patients who were more in touch with their emotions were shown to have stronger immune systems and smaller tumors. Similar results have been shown in many cancer studies. It appears that the suppression of anger and grief are linked with poorer outcomes for those who suffer from cancer.
Continual stress is often the cause of many illnesses. According to David Clarke, M.D., the main stressors to responsible for unexplained illness are, unresolved childhood stress, current stress, post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety. Thousands of patients have been cures of ailments ranging from migraines, body pain, inflammation, arthritis, back pain, chronic fatigue and many other illnesses by working through unresolved emotional pain responsible for the currents stress. Stress turns on the sympathetic nervous system, or our flight or fight instinct. When this happens our bodies send out nerve signals that increase heart rate, muscle tension, speed of breathing, and sweating; it also has on affect on our digestive and bowel system causing it to slow. When stress is prolonged our bodies are thrown out of balance.
References: Clarke, D. They Can’t Find Anything Wrong. Boulder. CO: Sentient Publications, 2007.
Pert, C. Molecules of Emotion. New York: Scribner, 1997.
Temoshok, L.& Dreher, H. The type of C connection. New York: Random House, 1992.