Most of us notice that our feelings manifest themselves in physical ways, sometimes even before we recognize the feelings themselves. When we’re nervous, for example, our knees knock together or our stomachs cramp. When we’re depressed, we may lose our appetites or, conversely, want to eat everything in sight. And when we fall in love, our entire systems go out of whack, causing any number of unusual symptoms. Our minds and our bodies are inseparable, each affecting the other.
I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry
WebMD reports a laundry list of symptoms associated with depression: headaches, back pain, muscle aches, joint pain, chest pain, digestive problems, fatigue, insomnia, weight changes, and dizziness.
According to WebMD, clinical depression seems related to an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, some of which play an important role in our feeling pain. Many experts believe that depressed people feel pain differently than others do.
The difference between clinical depression and the blues we all get from time to time is that depression may be unrelated to events and doesn’t go away. It’s a condition recognized in the medical field and with its own symptoms, just like any other disease. Sadness, though it’s not an actual illness, manifests itself in these physical ways, too.
Whatever we call it—being down in the dumps, having the blues, etc.—the full-body experience of sadness isn’t all in our heads. When you just can’t get out of bed after losing a loved one or ending a relationship, your brain is telling your body that it needs time to grieve.
Frank Tallis, author of Love Sick: Love as a Mental Illness , argues:
“The symptoms of love are many and varied. What’s intriguing is that if we list them—for example, preoccupation with the loved one, tearfulness, euphoria—and check them against accepted diagnostic criteria for mental illness, we find that most ‘lovers’ qualify for diagnoses of obsessional illness, depression or manic depression. And this is no superficial relationship. Neurochemical and brain scanning investigations have shown a considerable overlap between ‘the brain in love’ and ‘the brain in the throes of mental illness.’”
Whether or not you agree with Tallis’s anti-love position, he does make the point that “lovesickness” is a real phenomenon. A woman in love experiences symptoms including an upset stomach, changes in appetite and weight, insomnia, dizziness, confusion, high blood pressure, and chest pain (“heartache”). That’s because serotonin becomes involved when we fall in love; it’s the hormone that spurred our ancestors to leave food and go find a mate. The serotonin flowing in a lovesick brain makes everything just feel wrong until the person finds the object of her love.
She’s a Mess, the Girl Is Stressed
We read in the news about how stress is unhealthy and bad for our hearts, skin, and waistlines. Whether stress arises as a reaction to a particular incident—a new work deadline, for example—or appears as generalized anxiety, it grips us with a full-body attack.
In the short term, an anxiety attack can cause heart palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, chest pain, stomach pain, nausea or vomiting, and light-headedness, according to LivingwithAnxiety.com. Stress that occurs over the long term has less acute but more serious symptoms, including headache, back pain, stomach pain, insomnia, appetite and weight changes, heart palpitations, heart disease, high blood pressure, and decreased immunity, as listed by the Mayo Clinic staff.
Experts at the Olin Health Center at Michigan State University write that our bodies are programmed for a fight-or-flight response to perceived threats, like an attacking lion. Anxiety is a misfiring of this response to an unfounded threat, and stress is the result of a fight-or-flight response that happens so often as to become a person’s permanent way of being.
According to the University Counseling Center at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., anger is linked closely to other emotions and often masks them. Because of cultural pressure, we tend to be more comfortable expressing anger than we are expressing fear, sadness, or embarrassment. And anger’s physical symptoms resemble those of anxiety—both feelings are the result of a fight-or-flight response.
Angry people experience beating hearts, shortness of breath, hot flashes and sweating, trembling or shaking, and clenched jaws, and the overwhelming nature of these symptoms—especially when they occur in combination—often make it impossible for angry people to focus on anything but their anger. Anger-management programs use techniques like mindfulness meditation to help participants recognize their symptoms and reduce reactivity.
What a Feeling
We all react to emotions in different ways, but what we have in common is the link between our minds and bodies when it comes to feelings. When these physical symptoms arise, we need to pay attention to them and try to understand them in the context of our emotions so they don’t overwhelm us and affect our decision making.