A patient came in to see me describing constant heavy bleeding menorrhagia. We tried dietary changes, supplements and other purely physical approaches, with only minimal improvement. I began to probe for the emotional basis of her condition. She shared a description of her marriage to a man who did not support her emotionally and was often verbally abusive. I helped her see the connection between her relationship and her symptoms. One day a few months later, she came into my office and told me she had finally found the courage to leave the relationship. Her heavy bleeding stopped the next day, and has not returned.
The story was especially intriguing to me because I had the opposite happen to me when I was living abroad my sophomore year at college. The Gulf War was about to erupt and there were tensions in pockets of France. Our program director instructed us to keep a low profile, yet a fellow student was hit with a glass bottle by a Muslim fanatic yelling some anti-American sentiments. I was anxious and depressed. Maybe I would have fared okay if I had self-medicated with some of the red wine that was on the table every night, but I was newly sober, which wasn’t fun — schlepping myself to 12-step support groups in strange places where I didn’t understand half of what they said. My body literally shut down and I stopped menstruating (amenorrhea) the whole time I was there. No angel came to me and informed me that I was with child, so I knew I wasn’t pregnant.
Our body holds our emotions.
Some people will break out in hives during a stressful period; others get shingles. Many developmysterious, unexplained illnesses that will disappear when their emotional issues are resolved. For those who maintain that our physical symptoms are completely unrelated to the content in our hearts and souls, consider “broken heart syndrome,” the sudden heart failure that is brought on by emotional trauma. Different from a heart attack, broken heart syndrome is caused by a flood of hormones that impedes the ability of the heart muscle to pump. According to a 2005 Johns Hopkins study, a number of emotions — including joy and surprise — can cause it, not just sadness.
I was complaining to my psychiatrist last visit about all the side effects of my medications — the toll they could be taking on my body, especially over time.
“Lithium could kill my kidneys,” I said, “and I have no idea what the others are doing.”
She listened and then responded with rationale that I have often used in my argument to anti-medication friends on why it’s not always best to let a depression dissolve on its own.
“These medications do have risks,” she said, “but so does depression. It wears the body down over time.”
Most people know that depression can be triggered by various illnesses, especially cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, and arthritis. However, it might be news that untreated depression can actually increase the risk of developing some illnesses. In fact, a 2007 Norwegian study found that those participants with significant depression symptoms had a higher risk of death from most major causes, including heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses (such as pneumonia and influenza), and conditions of the nervous system (like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis).
The good news is that by treating depression — and by attending to your emotions — you cut down on physical illnesses. A new study published in the January 2014 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine found that the treatment of depression before any apparent signs of cardiovascular disease can decrease the risk of heart attacks and strokes by almost half.
In the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course that I attended at the local hospital this spring, we often located areas of tension in our body — places we hold our stress — and deliberately relaxed those muscles as we practiced deep breathing. In one homework assignment, we described the physical sensations in our body as we experienced something negative. Then, in formal meditation, we would direct our attention to those places and breathe into and out of them, trying our best to let go.
With lots of practice, the idea is that we would be able to hear our bodies earlier in emotional dips so that we wouldn’t end up with shingles or menorrhagia or amenorrhea. By attending to our emotional distress — and by treating depression and anxiety — we can become more resilient to illness and disease.