Can Our Memories Make Us Sick?

Coming down with a cold or a virus not only assaults your body with fatigue and discomfort, but also manages to discolor your entire psycho-emotional reality.

It is this intertwined physical and emotional relationship that permeates our speech when we describe ourselves as “feeling sick.” We insinuate both the bodily pain and the general emotional malaise that comes along with it.

Long before modern science pointed to any research linking emotions to health, ancient medicinal practices theorized that emotions formed the direct root of certain imbalances in the body.

Ancient Greek, Roman, and Indian Ayurvedic practitioners held emotional healing work around four visible body secretions that they called the “four humors”: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Presently, the term “melancholy” still exemplifies its inextricable connection, as it derives from the Latin words for “black” and “bitter bile.” And the production of phlegm would result in what we know now as a phlegmatic person, or a lethargic, languid, emotional being.

As the pillars of today’s science emerged, measurable and observable results took precedence over anything as fleeting and imprecise as emotions. Yet these very tenets of our scientific foundation have left vital elements of the human condition out of the equation.

Rising fields in neuroscience and biology are now revisiting previously held “superstitions” in light of new tools in scientific inquiry. It is only the beginning of this chapter in western science where the dogmas of empirical research are being loosened for more holistic understandings of the mind and body.

A pioneer in this scientific journey to trace the mind and body back together is Dr. Esther Sternberg. An immunologist, internationally recognized for illuminating the science of the mind-body interaction in illness and healing, her work linking the central nervous system and immune system shatters preconceived notions on integrative systems in the body.

Her book, “The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions,” explores how immune molecules within our blood trigger brain neurons that significantly impact emotions. She lands in this revelatory place by examining the ambiguous, yet entirely prevalent experience of stress.

“The same parts of the brain that control the stress response… play an important role in susceptibility and resistance to inflammatory diseases such as arthritis,” Sternberg explains in her book. “And since it is these parts of the brain that also play a role in depression, we can begin to understand why it is that many patients with inflammatory diseases may also experience depression at different times in their lives.”

Advances in cellular and molecular biology have made it possible to quantify the effect disease plays on our nervous system and hormones. And thanks to 20th century Austrian-Canadian physician and physiologist, Hans Selye, the word “stress” was coined during the first foray into how emotions can relate to physical disease in the body.

Building from the work of scientists like Selye, Dr. Sternberg found that these emotions are not simply sources of illnesses, but are in fact part of the same network of physical systems that cause disease.

“Rather than seeing the psyche as the source of such illnesses, we are discovering that while feelings don’t directly cause or cure disease, the biological mechanisms underlying them may cause or contribute to disease,” Dr. Sternberg describes in the book. “Thus, many of the nerve pathways and molecules underlying both psychological responses and inflammatory disease are the same, making predisposition to one set of illnesses likely to go along with predisposition to the other.”

So the question isn’t: Do emotions cause disease? But instead: Does the molecular work that causes depression also connect with disease?

Now, emotions enter the body through a host of memories within the fabrics of our identity and environment. Dr. Sternberg suggests that our memories themselves may act as pathways to our body’s susceptibility to disease.

“We are even beginning to sort out how emotional memories reach the parts of the brain that control the hormonal stress response, and how such emotions can ultimately affect the workings of the immune system and thus affect illnesses as disparate as arthritis and cancer,” writes Dr. Sternberg.

It’s the lingering scent of an ex-lover’s perfume, a familiar smile by a stranger, or a heartfelt song that bring a rush of memory sensation and emotional response. Physiologically, we experience palpitations, sweating, or adrenaline. These moments insert sensory data that control memory and connect to the different regions of the brain: the amygdala for fear or the nucleus accumbens for pleasure, for instance.

These memory hubs are physically linked with nerve routes that coordinate thought and stress.

As it turns out, memories excrete stress products into our neurobiological machinery, clogging the system to the point of going haywire. It does this by destroying immune defenses with the chronic release of invasive chemicals like cortisol.

“Immune cells floating in this milieu in blood, or passing through the spleen, or growing up in thymic nurseries never have a chance to recover from the unabated rush of cortisol,” Dr. Sternberg outlined. “Since cortisol shuts down immune cells’ responses, shifting them to a muted form, less able to react to foreign triggers, in the context of continued stress we are less able to defend and fight when faced with new invaders.”

During this stress-havoc within the body, if a flu virus then entered the arena, your immune system would be too debilitated to successfully react. But again, stress isn’t the direct function towards increasing our susceptibility to maladies.

It is not as simple as finding a more hospitable environment in which to manage stress. Instead, this requires an evaluation of how to reconstruct the past within our minds, which influence our present health.

Dr. Sternberg’s encompassing view of human physicality and neurobiology paves the way for a new medical tradition in which emotions hold equal weight in the realm of serious healing. Her work shatters taboos in scientific inquiry and builds new pathways between seemingly disparate events in the body and mind. Once again, we can travel back to the wisdoms of ancient practitioners and rectify a plane of human existence that has long been ignored.


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