Your body is more than just a vehicle for carrying your head around. Modern research shows the mind and body have a complex, interdependent relationship, and what affects one affects the other.
This is especially important in treating injured workers with delayed recoveries. Addressing only their physical symptoms ignores the fundamental role that emotions play in physical health. The key to optimal and quicker outcomes is to focus on the mind-body connection.
What Are Emotions
Contrary to what many think, emotions are not figments of our imagination, and they don’t necessarily originate in the brain. They are real, have a biochemical basis and are located in our bodies as well as our minds. Our thoughts and emotions move up the body to the brain, which processes and verbalizes them based on our expectations, beliefs and other filters. For those emotions that get through, the brain creates stories and assigns meaning to them.
The chemicals that control our bodies and brains are the same chemicals involved in emotions. These chemicals work in conjunction to operate our entire system.
Emotions are experienced and stored in both the body and the mind and can be triggered in various physical ways. Experiencing emotions can actually change our physical bodies.
Because emotions play an essential role in our physical health, those that are expressed allow the mind-body connection to work well, but repressing emotions can cause us to become physically ill.
Stress-related disease can be thought of as information overload, where the mind-body network is overly taxed by unprocessed sensory input, such as undigested emotions. This creates a logjam and does not allow the body’s natural flow of chemicals to work properly.
The Science of Emotions
The surfaces of our cells are lined with many receptors, and only specific molecules can attach to each one. These molecules are essentially messengers that continuously share information with the body, mind, neurons, glands and immune cells.
Proteins called peptides are information substances. Endorphins are an example of peptides.
Each peptide can affect our mind, emotions, immune system, digestion and other bodily functions simultaneously.
A feeling that originates in our mind or body will translate as a peptide, being released somewhere within the body where it can be accessed and stored. This means the emotional memory is stored in many places in the body, not just the brain.
These peptides that flood our bodies are, in a sense, molecules of emotion. Each peptide stimulates a particular “core” emotion.
Our gastrointestinal system has a large concentration of these peptides and is literally the source of a “gut feeling.”
Many scientists believe there are only a handful of “core” emotions, but from them, hundreds of subtle emotional states can be created–similar to the process of creating colors by blending primary colors. Examples of core emotions:
Other emotions that can be created by combining some of the core emotions include fear + surprise = alarm; joy and fear = guilt.
We can think of peptides, or informational substances, as the agents that integrate communication between the brain and the body. By expressing our emotions, healthy communication between the mind and body can occur. Repressing emotions block efficient communication, leading to problems in the body and mind.
This process helps explain why a person’s face might suddenly change color. An embarrassing thought goes through the peptides and causes blood vessels to dilate, turning the person’s face bright red.
This also explains why some people are more susceptible to contracting viruses than others. Viruses use the same receptors as emotions do to enter into a cell. Depending on the amount of the natural peptide available for that receptor, the virus may have an easier or more difficult time getting into the cell.
Emotions and Injured Workers
Injured workers with delayed recoveries typically have unexpressed emotions that exacerbate their injuries, leading to prolonged disabilities. Interventions, especially cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), are an excellent way to help these injured workers express their unresolved emotions and allow the natural flow of peptide signals.
The techniques we use in CBT have a physiological basis and can promote recovery by integrating the body’s native repair and regenerative systems. Examples of some of the skills we teach injured workers are:
- Mindful meditation – Learning and practicing this regularly relieves stress, which helps clear internal pathways.
- Guided imagery – This helps the injured worker get in a relaxed state in which he can gain control over repressed emotions.
- Biofeedback – This helps the injured worker become more aware of physiological functions that occur in conjunction with emotions, so he can learn to express his emotions in healthy ways.
- Exercise – Since injuries and trauma are stored in tissues of the body, movement allows us to get in touch with our bodies, which we can think of as the subconscious mind. Doing any sort of exercise, even taking a walk, can help get some of the repressed emotions unstuck.
- Touch – Massage or even a hug can help clear internal pathways and release blocked energy.
Our bodies are not a collection of separate organs and systems, but an information network in which our cells constantly move and work in sync. Teaching injured workers skills to register and express their emotions can help get their bodies functioning properly and recover from their injuries.
IMCS – Integrated Medical Case Solutions – is the premier behavioral medicine network for pain and trauma response with evidence-based outcomes and a proven track record for transforming workers’ compensation cases. IMCS makes intervention efficient with a national network of 1,000+ psychologists and psychiatrists in all 50 states.