Unexpressed Emotions Create Illness: The Scientific Evidence

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Within the holistic community the emotional-physical or the mind-body connection has been a cornerstone of its philosophy and approach to health care.

Over the last decade, science has become involved: looking for evidence that unexpressed emotions influence or even cause illness and pain. And there have been some interesting discoveries…

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In her book, Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine, Dr. Candace Pert explores the connection between physical conditions and emotions. She states how short chains of amino acids called peptides and receptors, active in the brain and in the stomach, muscles, glands, and all major organs, are responsible for sending messages back and forth between the physical areas in which they are active and our emotions.

In an interview Dr. Pert is quoted as saying:

“I think there is overwhelming evidence that unexpressed emotion causes illness.”

Pert believes unexpressed emotions are buried in the body, deep down in the circuitry of the organs.

“Your memories,” she says, “Can get stored that way in a pancreas, for example.”

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In his groundbreaking book, The Body Says No, Vancouver physician and author Gabor Mate lists many medical and social experiments conducted over the last twenty years that sought out evidence connecting childhood emotions and current lifestyle stresses with disease.

He cites research such as:

“Studies at the U.S National Cancer Institute found that NK cells – an important class of immune cells – are more active in breast cancer patients who are able to express anger, who adopt a fighting stance, and who have more social support.”

David Kissen, a British chest surgeon, states that patients with lung cancer were frequently characterized by a tendency to bottle up emotions…that the risk for lung cancer was five times higher in men who lacked the ability to express emotion effectively.”

“The University of Rochester in New York conducted a fifteen year study of people who had developed lymphoma or leukemia and found that those malignancies were apt to occur in a setting of emotional loss or separation which in turn brought about feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger or hopelessness”

In his own research, Mate uses exclusive exposure to his hospital patients to ask them questions about their personal life and childhood history. The answers he receives expose connections between diseases such as multiple-sclerosis, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s and the suppression of childhood emotions such as anger and sadness.

Such research being conducted in scientific laboratories by scientists such as Candace Pert and in the hospital wards by Gabor Mate begs the question:

If greater and more prevalent freedom of emotional expression were exercised in our lives could disease be prevented, curtailed, or in certain individual cases, eliminated?

There is some danger of creating an expectation here. It would be far too easy, perhaps even irresponsible, to conclude from such research that breast cancer will be prevented or even disappear if you express anger. Or similarly that if men express emotions they will avoid contracting lung cancer. At best, such research should confirm, or at least create enquiry into how we organize ourselves emotionally in response to our early childhood and our present environments, and whether this is in any way relates to the presence of disease in our lives.

Contrary to the findings of some popular books on the market these days, in my own research and experience, I have found it to be too simplistic to assume an emotion or stress is directly linked to one specific area of the body, or that a disease or illness has direct connection to a specific emotion.

Statements these books make, such as, “A bladder infection means you are pissed off,” implies that if anger is allowed to vent, then the bladder infection will disappear, and that if I continue to vent my anger, bladder infections will be less likely to appear again.

Or another: “Constipation is due to holding feelings inside, therefore if my feelings are let out the constipation will be relieved,” may well occur, but at best it is a hit and miss approach.

For emotional expression to influence physical relief, the whole of the emotional system associated with the physical concern must be taken into account. The whole emotional system includes the emotions that do not have expression along with the resistances or defenses operating against the expression of those emotions.

For more reading on how emotions influence physical conditions go to:

Do Unexpressed Emotions Contribute to Illness and Pain?

Can Unexpressed Emotion Be Linked to Pain, Discomfort, and Disease?

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2 thoughts on “Unexpressed Emotions Create Illness: The Scientific Evidence

  1. Francine van der Schoot

    Hi Pietro, thanks for this wonderful blog. I just finished a webinar series called revisiting trauma, with a group of wonderful speakers who are on the same page as us about the body storing trauma. Peter Levine, Pat Ogden, Steve Porges and others have inspirational thoughts and encouraging research. it is really wonderful for me as a practitioner to see this being embraced in a more mainstream manner and with some of the above speakers providing practical tools for those of us in practice. Francine

  2. from a layman’s perspective i can agree with the idea that unexpressed emotions contribute to illness. i also agree that it is more complicated but from a personal point a view I can always relate sickness to something that is upsetting and stressful.
    i have known many friends to have had shingles and know for a fact that their lives were totally upside down. i do wonder about cancer and how it hits people in different parts of their body? would love to learn more about that.daphne

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