Harmful thoughts

It’s normal to think about things. I would even go as far as to say it’s necessary, but when does what we think, spill over into our emotions and cause us to have health problems.

In 1947 the World Health Organisation defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing.” Until now governments and healthcare practitioners have given precedence to promoting physical wellbeing, but a recent paper, Our Healthier Nation concludes that this may need to change.

The paper emphasises the importance of emotional wellbeing for health.  Interestingly, the paper defines health as ‘being confident and positive and able to cope with the ups and downs of life.’ This definition is supported by more and more research suggesting that promoting only physical wellbeing may well be inadequate. I believe it is inadequate.

The concept of mental and social wellbeing is less well defined than that of physical wellbeing, but the link between our emotional health and wellbeing is emerging as an important part of illness.

There is some research to show that emotional distress creates susceptibility to physical illness. For example, it is well accepted that exam stress increases susceptibility to viral infection and stress from a lack of control in the workplace, or from life events creates susceptibility to heart disease.

Animal studies provide supporting evidence that emotional distress can lead to physical illness by affecting the immune response. Health related lifestyles, provide the basis for an alternative, potentially complementary link. For instance, smoking, drinking, and the consumption of high fat foods are all valued by the public for their ability to relieve emotional distress and this behaviour is providing the link that physical disease may be the consequence of emotional distress.

Several studies have shown that social and emotional support can protect against premature mortality, prevent illness, and aid recovery.  It is plausible that these could act by reducing emotional distress. Various studies also suggest that as important for health as our income is, our social links and organisation (civic participation, social trust) is of emotional benefit.

Solutions to public health problems like inequalities in health and unhealthy lifestyles may therefore contribute to a problem with our emotional and physical health. A further body of research shows that unresolved emotional distress in childhood is an important cause of emotional distress in adulthood.

Two successful programmes to address this are parenting programmes and mental health promotion programmes in schools. The evidence shows that parenting programmes can both reverse emotional and behavioural problems and prevent their emergence. Several school mental health promotion programmes have been subject to controlled trials which show a positive impact on emotional wellbeing through developing empathy and respect, leading to improved self-esteem in children and parents and increases in their ability to give and receive social and emotional support.

For this to continue into mainstream day to day care, doctors’ other healthcare professionals and ultimately politicians will need to believe that emotional and social wellbeing are as important for health as physical wellbeing.

I believe they are. There is a connection. I have lost a loved one to emotional distress and disease.


20 May, 2015

4 thoughts on “Harmful thoughts

  1. This is such an interesting post. It is incredible that the healthcare and medical world are only now waking up to the relationship between our mental and physical health and even more incredible that they need studies to be convinced.

    I am sure we all know people who have suffered from stress for example and how this has affected their health. My father had a heart attack in his forties when the family business folded and I hear of stress related illnesses which are prevalent in my business circle.

    The connection is long overdue, as is the need to address mental and emotional health issues before they come to manifest physically. It’s about time the ‘taboo’ and embarrassments around mental health are displaced for good.

  2. Yes, they can definitely cause health issues, speaking from experience! They keep questioning whether stress can cause physical issues in children and I can honestly say that it did a number on me. I have had to deal with the physical issues most of my life. Constant stress causes wonderful things like indigestion, IBS and regular migraines among so many other things.

    People seem to focus so much on physical health, which is a great idea, but I think emotional health plays a very big part too. I have had to deal with mine on a much deeper level, which most people are fortunate enough not to have to deal with the issues every day.

    I was raised in such a negative environment that at times it seemed nearly impossible to be positive! You can’t go from existing in the dark side to the light overnight.

    My mind has been my own worst enemy most of my life! Harmful thoughts is a very polite way of putting down what runs through my mind on a daily basis. I just find it very ignorant of people to say things like, ‘just get over it!’ If it was really that easy, I’m pretty sure I would have done it a long time ago.

    The most I can really do now is learn how to better deal with the noise in my head. If I can at least get it down to a dull roar that would be awesome!

    1. Yes I’m with you on that Randy, also having been brought up in a negative environment. It’s not easy changing behaviour patterns; to go from negative thinking to positive thinking overnight. I know how you feel.

      There is definitely a correlation between our physical and our emotional health, of which I feel we must be aware. Although it’s not easy changing behaviour patterns, it’s necessary that we at least try.

      I have seen first hand what happens when we fail to make the correlation between our emotional and physical health, but we must at least try to sort out how we feel; and find a place for our emotions so that we can live our lives the way we want, without the possibility of having to deal with illness.

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