Nineteen years ago I was an LDS missionary in South Texas. I was twenty one and full of desire to go out and serve. Two months into my mission after quite a few visits and different symptoms, going back and forth and taking LOT’s of medication I was diagnosed with Spinal Meningitis. In a few days I was on plane back home to recover. To make a long story short I made my way back to McAllen and I kept serving but I was not stranger to illness the rest of the eighteen months.
On an interview with my mission president he said the following:
I admit it took me a while to understand what he meant. I was upset. Did he think I was making things up? It was not until years later that I understood and learned more about what he meant.
Research shows that the link between emotions and illness is real and time has shown me how true those words where.
A study by Finnish researchers back in 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, suggests that our emotions do indeed tend to influence our bodies in consistent ways.
Across five experiments, 701 participants “were shown two silhouettes of bodies alongside emotional words, stories, movies, or facial expressions. They were asked to color the bodily regions whose activity they felt increasing or decreasing while viewing each stimulus.”
The emotions were generated by having the subjects read short stories or watch movies. On a blank, computerized figurine, they were then asked to color in the areas of their body where sensations became stronger (the red and yellow) or weaker (blue and black) when they felt a certain way.
The mapping exercise produced what you might expect: an angry hot-head, a happy person lighting up all the way through their fingers and toes, a depressed figurine that was literally blue (meaning they felt little sensation in their limbs). Almost all of the emotions generated changes in the head area, suggesting smiling, frowning, or skin temperature changes, while feelings like joy and anger saw upticks in the limbs—perhaps because you’re ready to hug, or punch, your interlocutor. Meanwhile, “sensations in the digestive system and around the throat region were mainly found in disgust,” the authors wrote. It’s worth noting that the bodily sensations weren’t blood flow, heat, or anything else that could be measured objectively—they were based solely on physical twinges subjects said they experienced.
The correlations between the subjects’ different body maps were strong—above .71 for each of the different stimuli (words, stories, and movies). Speakers of Taiwanese, Finnish, and Swedish drew similar body maps, suggesting that the sensations are not limited to a given language.
So what are we seeing in these illustrations? The authors note that, measured physiologically, most feelings only cause a minor change in heart rate or skin temperature—our torsos don’t literally get hot with surprise.
Instead, the results likely reveal subjective perceptions about the impact of our mental states on the body, a combination of muscle and visceral reactions and nervous system responses that we can’t easily differentiate. Feeling jealous may not truly make us red in the face, for example, but we certainly might feel like it does.
Going back to my missionary days, the times that I felt better is when I was busy working and being happy. When I let anxiety, depression or fear win I would feel sick. It has been true most of my adult life but I always ask myself…
Is it all in my head?