Newsletter - October, 2000

Impact of Negative Emotion on Health: Symptoms

Paul McGhee, PhD

    "MS also has its good points; I never have to worry about stirring my coffee anymore."
    (Multiple Sclerosis patient)

Last month, we discussed the impact of (especially chronic) negative emotion on survival. This month, we will focus on it's impact on symptoms.

We saw last month that the grief you feel after the death of a loved one can damage your own health. This is not surprising, but even the commonplace bad moods and negative attitudes we all suffer can set us up for poorer health--if they occur day after day, month after month. This is difficult to document in research, but the herpes simplex virus (responsible for small ulcers, fever blisters, and cold sores around the mouth) provides a good way to demonstrate it. This virus, carried by about 1/3 of the U.S. population, normally remains latent, but persistent negative emotions can trigger an outbreak.1 Pessimistic students, who can be expected to generally have more negative moods than optimistic students, have even been shown to develop more symptoms than optimistic students around exam time.2 Pessimistic students also show more symptoms of illness over time than do optimistic students in the general population (i.e., regardless of their herpes simplex status), even when both groups start out equally healthy.3

In 1991, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine finally established that stress makes you more vulnerable to the common cold. However, your mood and coping skills also influence susceptibility to colds and the flu.4 One study showed that those with low morale, and who cope less well with stress, are three times more likely to catch the flu during a flu epidemic.5
In the case of more severe illnesses, increased stress levels among coronary heart disease patients have been shown to increase the level of angina pectoris experienced.6
Multiple Sclerosis is a good example of a disease known to incur exacerbations or worsening symptoms in the presence of negative emotional states. Anything MS patients can do to sustain a positive frame of mind on a day-to-day basis helps keep these exacerbations from occurring. One man who had difficulty controlling his shaking hand told me the quote given at the beginning of this article.
In summarizing the entire field of research in this area, Blair Justice concluded in his book, Who Gets Sick, that while there are many exceptions, the general rule is that "Those who get sick the most seem to view the world and their lives as unmanageable."7 What better reason could there be to learn to manage the stress in your own life more effectively? Your sense of humor makes life more manageable at the same time that it adds more joy and fun.

People who are chronically prone to depression, anger, or anxiety over the course of their lives have a greater risk of disease.8 There is a growing conviction among many researchers that this increased susceptibility to disease is at least partly a result of the suppressive effects of negative emotions upon the immune system, although the disease that appears depends on specific vulnerabilities, health-related habits, and family history.

Generally speaking, you're most likely to become ill in response to stress if your immune system is already compromised. For example, since the immune system becomes weaker as you get older, senior citizens are more vulnerable to stress-related illness. Clearly, any tools which these individuals can acquire to help manage negative emotions should also help protect them against disease.

Finally, there is now ample evidence that mental factors influence the mechanisms which mediate pain. Many patients say that their pain is worsened when they feel depressed or when things seem hopeless. It is reduced, on the other hand, when they're distracted or doing something enjoyable. One researcher concluded that "thoughts and emotions can directly influence physiological responses--including muscle tension, blood flow, and levels of brain chemicals--that play important roles in the production of pain . . . Psychological factors can also indirectly influence pain by affecting the way you cope with it."9
New techniques for managing pain are designed to help reduce the occurrence of stress-increasing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, because this serves to reduce the pain experienced. One of these techniques--the most enjoyable one--is humor and laughter.

[Excerpt from Dr. McGhee's book, Health, Healing and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training. Published by Kendall/Hunt, 1999. To order a copy by e-mail, see Click on orders. ISBN number is 7872-5797-4.]

Pun Fun

Since non-native speakers of English are the main readers of this column, this section will provide an exercise in learning to play with language each month. Use the clue give to try to come up with your own funny answer for the missing part of the punch line before checking the answer given below. These are children's riddles, but are still not easy to answer.

1) Why don't women grow as bald as men?
Because they wear their hair _______.
Clue: What is the opposite of short?

2) When is a door not a door? When its _______.
Clue: Find a word that means slightly open. It starts with "a."

3) Did you hear about the cannibal who had a wife and _____ children?
Clue: What number of children is consistent with the idea that he's a cannibal?

4) What did the Mexican Fire Chief name his new twin sons?
JosZ<caron> and ______ B.
Clue: Remember, he's Mexican. Think about the sound of "JosZ<caron>" and the fact that he's a fireman.

1. Luborsky, L., et al. Herpes simplex virus and moods: A longitudinal study. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 1976, 20, 543-548.
2. Scheier, M.F. & Carver, C.S. Optimism, coping and health: Assessment and implications of generalized outcome expectancies. Health Psychology, 1985, 4, 219-247.
3. Peterson, C. & Bossio, L.M. Health attitudes: Optimism, hope, and control. In Goleman & Gurin, 1993.
4. Cohen, R., et al. Psychological stress and susceptibility to the common cold. New England Journal of Medicine, 1991, 325, 606-612.
5. Cluff, L.E., et al. Asian influenza: Infection, disease and psychological factors. Archives of Internal Medicine, 1966, 117, 159-164.
6. Verthein, U. & Kohler, T. The correlation between everyday stress and angina pectoris: A longitudinal study. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 1997, 43, 241-245.
7. Justice, B. Who Gets Sick: How Beliefs, Moods, and Thoughts Affect Your Health. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1987.
8. Friedman, H.S. & Booth-Kewley, S. The disease-prone personality. American Psychologist, 1987, 42, 539-555.
9. Turk, D.C. & Nash, J.M. Chronic Pain: New ways to cope. In Goleman & Gurin, 1993, p. 115-116.

Answers to Pun Fun
1) Longer (plays on time vs. physical length)
2) Ajar
3) Ate (eight)
4) Hose