One doctor, who worked over two decades of family medicine, including seven years of palliative care work, was surprised how consistently the lives of people with chronic illness were characterized by emotional shutdown. We call this the paralysis of negative emotions, in particular, anger. So let’s try to explore the relationship between physical and mental health.
Are mental and physical health really interconnected?
This claim holds true in a wide range of diseases, from cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis to inflammatory bowel disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Patients with these illnesses seem incapable of considering their own emotional needs. These patients also have problems with a compulsive sense of responsibility for the needs of others.
Preventing physical disease with mental health
In one study, women with breast cancer had difficulty expressing anger toward their physicians. They also had diminished activity of a group of immune cells called natural killers, or NK cells. They had a poorer survival rate than women whose anger was more clearly expressed and whose NK cells were better able to attack the tumor. It follows that an essential preventive measure against cancer and other diseases is an awareness of what emotions we are experiencing. A healthy expression of these emotions is also essential.
These same qualities are also important to the healing of those diagnosed with some illness. However, there is no quick route to emotional awareness, because many of us have lost that capacity in early childhood. We must begin by practicing paying close attention to the body. We must pay attention to the tension in the neck, a flutter in the abdomen, a headache, a sudden hoarseness of voice, unexplained muscle pain. We have to watch also for an outbreak of rash, poor sleep, and disturbed bowel habits.
These and many other phenomena can be symptomatic of some underlying emotional disturbance. We must ask ourselves what in our lives, in our work, in our relationship, bothers us; it can be something we’ve never been paying attention to. Why, and to what, is our body saying no, is an important question we must answer.
Should we treat mental and physical disorder the same way?
Since we have heard for many political debates concerning mental health parity, we must answer to this question. Mental health parity is the idea that mental disorders should be treated with the same level of respect as physical disorders are. Since mental and physical health are both equally important, we should treat these disorders equally. The reason that the parity debate exists at all is that our institutions have the idea that mental disorders are somehow fundamentally different from physical disorders. This is not true, of course, and we must provide the same rights to treatment.