How Our Thought Life Can Effect Our Physical Body (Part 1 of 2)
April 15, 2015
Do you ever wonder if your thought life has anything to do with the physical symptoms you experience in your body?
If your answer is no, this article is for you. No longer does science consider the mind and body separate entities. Science supports that they are interweaved and interconnected. (1)
Where does emotional stress come from? Your thoughts. If you truly had a passive mind in every sense of the definition, you would not experience stress. If you began your life where:
- Everybody liked you
- You were never made to feel left out
- You passed all of your tests
- You got the lead role in the school play
- You placed first in the science fair
- The boy or girl that you liked also liked you
- You earned first chair playing the violin
- Peers never picked on you in school or at work
- You grew up in a perfect home with a perfect family
- Your teachers and coaches always liked you
- You started at the position you wanted in every single sport you played
- You had perfect relationships with everyone
- You had the perfect house you wanted
- You had the perfect car you wanted
- Nobody ever spoke ill about you
- Everything in life was exactly as you wanted it
But that is not life. Life has its challenges. We react to life, accordingly.
Often times patients are told that their symptoms are due to stress but are offered very little or no explanation or elaboration on this. They are left feeling that their symptoms are “all in their head.” Science is catching up to and catching on to the notion that repressed emotions and thoughts DO have physical manifestations. This all has to do with what neuropeptides, or chemicals that the brain secretes in response to emotions or thoughts.
As you are reading this, you may even be thinking about where you “carry your stress.” It is not uncommon for you to do certain things with your body in response to sustained high levels of stress. Think about those projects that you are trying to finish for your boss before a deadline. Our bodies do several things in response to stress. A few common examples are hiking up our shoulders, apical shallow breathing (or breathing through your chest at rest rather than diaphragmatically), bouncing your knee or knees up and down rhythmically, etc. These are outward and visible manifestations of stress. These are things readily observed by others but for some reason, we are not always cognizant of these things until they are brought to our attention by others or if they start presenting other physical symptoms.
Let us start with breathing. There are two main types of breathing; diaphragmatic breathing and apical breathing. Both are completely normal when they are performed at the correct times. Diaphragmatic breathing is the most efficient way of respiration at rest. The diaphragm is a large muscle that connects to the upper lumbar vertebral bodies and discs, your inferior sternum, and the lower 6 ribs and costal cartilages. When it contracts, it forces down your abdominal contents pressurizing your abdomen during inhalation. It also has fascial attachments to your deep core which is why diaphragmatic breathing is very important in helping stabilize your core and spine during movement and exercise but that is the subject for another topic!
Let’s look at the other type of breathing. Apical breathing involves using accessory muscles such as your upper trapezius, sternocleidomastoids (the large cable-like muscle on each side of your neck), scalenes, pectoralis, serratus anterior and latissimus dorsi. These are termed accessory muscles because that is just what they are. They are not designed to be your primary means of respiration; rather they are meant to assist. They will help elevate or expand the ribs to allow the lungs to expand more during heavy breathing. The problem lies when they become your primary means of respiration at rest. Like any muscle, they will tire and shorten and can even become painful. This is one significant contributor to those who say they “carry stress in their neck and shoulders.” They are actually right, but don’t know why. The same can happen to our leg muscles or upper extremity muscles if they are always rhythmically bouncing in response to stress. It’s one thing to have your neck, upper back and leg muscles tighten and get sore. We perceive this as musculoskeletal pain and more of an annoyance. It is quite another if you sense tightening and pain in your chest and give you the sensation that is more difficult to breathe. What does that sound like? Keep that thought in mind for a later illustration.
Research has shown that 87% of illnesses are a direct result of our thought life!(1)
Repressed thoughts do not just disappear with no ill effect. They can linger around, deeply recessed in your brain and can cause a plethora of physical symptoms, including pain. Is all thought suppression bad? Of course not! Think of a times in your life when you receive bad news but you are still at work or in a situation where you absolutely must get something done. You still have to go about your day and accomplish tasks. The brain does a pretty good job suppressing emotions so that you can focus on the task at hand. It may not be your best work but you are able to do so.
Emotions aren’t just an abstract thing. They originate somewhere in your brain. That somewhere is your limbic system. The limbic system is the part of your brain that controls your emotions. Within the limbic system, one gland exerts much control over your emotions and that gland is called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus will produce and secrete chemicals based on what emotion you are experiencing in your mind.(1)
Once a stress threshold has been exceeded, be it physical or emotional stress, there is a system in your body known as the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis or the HPA.2 This involves the hypothalamus gland and the pituitary gland but also the kidneys. Your kidneys are responsible for producing and secreting the main stress hormones to prepare us to fight or flight; adrenaline and cortisol. The kidneys are instructed via chemical signals coming from the hypothalamus and pituitary gland to secrete these chemicals. Let’s take migraines for example, which are classified as a neuroinflammatory disease. Research has shown that stress causes the activation of intracranial mast cells (inflammatory cells) through actions of a stress hormone pre-cursor called corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) and neuropeptides. This is the same pathway, the HPA axis pathway that was just briefly described.(3)
Your brain does an excellent job prioritizing tasks in order of urgency. Our brain also does a great job at figuring out whether emotions that we feel are necessary and appropriate or not. The hypothalamus has been termed the “brain” of the endocrine (hormone) system.(1)
The pituitary gland is directly influenced by the hypothalamus; therefore, the hypothalamus facilitates and inspires emotions felt in response to life events, whether they be fear, stress, rage, anxiety and panic attacks, phobia, anger or depression.(1)
Let’s go back to the tightening sensation in your chest accompanied by pain and increased effort when breathing. These symptoms are consistent with myocardial infarction or a heart attack. They are also consistent with anxiety and panic attacks. This is an unwanted stressor and it needs to be managed immediately. If your primary care physician and cardiologist rule out your heart, it is pretty safe to say the symptoms you were experiencing are not because of your heart. Recall that thoughts and emotions aren’t just an abstract thing, but rather a biochemical phenomenon that occurs in your brain first and then other biochemical pathways in your body can be activated accordingly.
Sometimes just having your doctor rule something out is all that some patients need. They will immediately feel better and go on about their life knowing that their life is not in any imminent danger. However, this is not always the case for some. Did you know that you don’t have to believe anything that you don’t want to, literally? Remember the limbic system? It actually has another amazing capability, which can be very beneficial or very harmful and lead to one’s undoing. Your limbic system, the “seat of your emotions,” is what allows you to believe something or not. You can be presented with evidence that is logical, scientific fact, reasonable or just plain common sense but if your limbic system does not allow you to feel that it is true, you won’t believe it.(1)
Let’s look at two examples; one a little silly and another that happens often in health care. For the first example, you are shown a mathematical equation in several formats that proves 2+2 and 2×2 have the exact same answer. If you negatively perceive this and feel that it is not true, your brain secretes chemicals associated with negative emotions and the chances are very good that you will not believe that the above two answers are in fact the same, even if all the facts are right in front of you. Let’s look at the second example, which could possibly be viewed just as silly but is more serious in nature. Your primary care is certain that the symptoms you were feeling were not due to your heart but refers you to a world-renowned cardiologist. This cardiologist proves the same thing with a physical exam and testing. But since you are convinced this is not true, your brain secretes chemicals tied to negative emotions and you do not receive this information as fact and you reject it. Those same chemicals that your brain releases are also linked to why people will not remember certain things. The Hippocampus (area of your brain involved in memory) volume decreases in humans in response to chronic stress. This has been demonstrated through elevated cortisol serum levels and MRI of the brain to measure volumetry.(4) This is the scientific data that may suggest why those who are chronically stressed have a “poor memory.”
The same can go for low back pain, neck pain, sciatica etc. Pain is a very complex thing. Look how complex emotions and thoughts were! More importantly, you can have a physical therapist, primary care physician, orthopedist, neurologist, pain management doctor, etc assure you that your areas of concern are normal but if you don’t believe them, the former research may suggest why symptoms do not abate. Consider the following. Just because your low back or neck hurts does not necessarily mean that you have a problem with your spine such as a bulging disc or degenerative joint disease.
As a matter of fact, a new study from January of 2015 just showed that 87% of over 1200 asymptomatic individuals had abnormal findings on an MRI of their neck, including persons in their 20s!(5)
Let’s look at another illustration at how powerful the brain is:
If somebody tells you a terrifying experience or very stressful experience or say you are watching a thriller or horror movie, your brain will release chemicals accordingly to prepare your body for that situation. In fact, world-renowned Neuroscientist Dr Candace Pert, who was credited with discovering the opiate receptor, demonstrated in her research that emotions regulate what you experience as reality.(1) This is a normal response. The problem lies where these emotions, and subsequently these chemicals are chronically being released, unchecked due to various circumstances in life. These chemicals can wreak havoc on your homeostatic balance if left unchecked. These chemicals can change the surface on your cells, specifically the receptors. Your cell receptors are very specific and only allow a very specific peptide or chemical to bind to them. When this occurs, your cells allow the information in the peptide to enter the cell and cause the appropriate cellular changes. When certain hormones are continually bathing your cellular surfaces, they can actually begin changing the cellular surface, specifically the receptors, allowing more chemicals to bind to these receptors that initially were never intended to bind. Once these bind, their contents are allowed into your cells. This is how cells can change, right down to the level of DNA.
Think of your front door for example. Only one key can unlock your door and that’s it. It’s to keep unwanted visitors out and only allow the ones that you want in your house in. Now imagine that you allow a locksmith to work on your door for hours at a time and he figures out a way to allow more than one key to open this door. You now have a problem on your hands. Now more than one key can access your home without your knowledge or authorization.
As mentioned before, toxic thoughts and emotions from stress can wreak havoc on homeostatic imbalances in your mind and body. A study performed on animals demonstrated that chronically stressed (psychological stress) animals revealed significant decreases in concentrations of brain metabolites (byproducts) associated with neuroaxonal tissue of the adult animal brain. The presence of these chemicals indicate neuronal viability and function. The concentration was significantly lower in chronically stressed animals.(4) That means that the viability and function of their brain was lower than non-stressed animals. Research has also proved that dendrites, or the “trees of your mind” where much of your information and memories are stored, decrease in size in volume in response to long-term stress responses. Total length and branch number decreased by 20 and 17%, respectively. Science believes that this may be the reason why some have a problem shutting off or inhibiting the long-term stress response. Remember the HPA or the Hypothalamic-Pituitary Adrenal Axis? This was the system that activates the stress response that we discussed earlier. Well it turns out that the decreases in dendritic branches and overall length in the prefrontal cortex area of your brain may be the very reason why some have trouble shutting this stress system off. This also may suggest why some people have that “fog” or “poor memory.” This is also important in post-traumatic stress disorder. These individuals have become highly sensitized to a stressor and have difficulty shutting this stress-response system off because of decreased volume in certain regions of the brain.(6)
VIDEO: Stress response and activation of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary Adrenal Axis
What else is effected by stress and thought life? I guess the correct phrasing of that question should be what isn’t effected by stress and your thought life? Let’s briefly look at immune function and stress. A study performed in 1985 looked at Stress, Loneliness and Changes in latency of a particular virus in 49 healthy medical students who all had the HSV virus. What this study showed was that the level of antibody titers were highest across the board in the student’s most stressful time, which was during final exams and lowest across the board during their lowest stressful time, which was summer break. For whatever reason, stress was shown to decrease latency of that virus causing the immune system to work harder during that stressful time.(7)
In closing, take the time to digest all of the information just presented to you. Hopefully you understand how powerful the brain is, whether your mind is active or passive and how very real the mind and body connection is. It has long been speculated and eluded to but now scientific evidence is starting to support it. In the upcoming Fast and the Curious email campaign, strategies that you can use to help you identify and deal with these things will be presented to you so that you can get started with it. It will also outline how physical therapy as well as exercising in general can help with these things.
Be on the lookout for Part 2 of this article coming soon!
**Stress can enhance the rewarding efficacy of drugs, likely via influences on the mesolimbic DA system. Stress causes an increase in DA levels in the Nucleus Acumbens (NAc) and prefrontal cortex (Horger and Roth 1996; Piazza and LeMolal, 1998) ** from Drugs of Abuse Article. – this is quoted and NOT PARAPHRASED.
** Stress has been also reported to affect synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus. Specifically, acute stress appears to rapidly INHIBIT the generation of LTP (long-term potentiation) and facilitate LTD (Shors et al., 1989; Kim et al., 1996; Xu et al., 1997, 1998.) – From Drugs and Abuse Article – this is NOT PARAPHRASED.
(1) Leaf, Caroline. Who Switched Off My Brain?: Controlling Toxic Thoughts and Emotions. Switch on Your Brain International LLC.
(2) Mastorakos et al. Exercise and the Stress System. Review. Hormones 2005, 4(2): 73-89
(3) (TC Theoharides et al., Journal of Endocrinology., Volume 136., Issue 12., Stress Induced Intracranial Mast Cell Degranulation: A Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone-Mediated Effect)
(4) Boldizar C. et al. Stress Induced Changes in Cerebral Metabolites, Hippocampal Volume, and Cell Proliferation are Prevented By AntiDepressant Treatment with Tianeptine. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Division of Neurobiology. 12796-12801. October 23, 2001. Vol 98. No. 22.
(5) Nakashima H. Abnormal Findings on Magnetic Resonance Imaging Images of the Cervical Spines in 1211 Asymptomatic Subjects. Spine. 15 March 2015. Volume 40. Issue 6 – p 392-398.
(6) JJ Radley et al. Corrigendum to “chronic behavioral stress induces apical dendritic reorganization in pyramidal neurons of the medial prefrontal cortex. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2004.01.006 Neuroscience, Volume 130, Issue 3, 2005, pp 805
(7) Glaser R. Stress, Loneliness and Changes in HSV Latency. Journal of Behavioral Medicine. September 1985; Vol 8, Issue 3; pp 249-260.