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You might have heard the slightly morbid joke claiming that someone who never gets angry just grows a tumor instead. However, some doctors confirmed this, while not particularly funny, is a possibility we should carefully consider.

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.

They often have difficulty saying “no”, or a similar mental problem. Many studies confirm the prevalence of these patterns in people with chronic conditions and diseases. The suppression of anger contributes to the onset of cancer and other diseases, and we must not observe the mind and body separately. 
The brain’s emotional centers directly and powerfully connect with the immune centers throughout the body. Emotions such as anger serve exactly the same defensive role as the immune system: to protect our boundaries and to keep us from being overwhelmed by external forces. 
Similarly, both emotions and the immune system, when healthy, also serve a repair function. They help us to heal after we sustain trauma or when something goes wrong internally. Emotions and immunity work together, as a single system of defense and repair, so when we suppress any aspect of that system, other parts are suppressed as well.

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. 

Though we know today that this view (mental disorders being different or inferior to physical disorders) is false, the legacy of these older prejudiced beliefs still rules. For example, any coverage of mental disorders is inferior to that provided for physical health concerns. Also, mental and physical disorders are actually diagnosed using separate diagnostic books.
This exists in no other field of medicine. Mental disorders are diagnosed using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and physical disorders using the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. This is obviously a huge mistake, because mental and physical health are obviously interconnected, the same way their respective disorders are.