Stress and Disease: A Doctor’s Take on the Toll of Emotions

An excerpt from ‘90 Days to Self-Health’
Most people accept the fact that a peptic ulcer is a disease of stress. Emotional stress commonly leads to gastric irritation, beginning with a raw, empty feeling that something is wrong in the abdomen. Then there is the pain, which is relieved by milk or food, and aggravated by coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, and aspirin, all things that either increase the intensity of stress or whose acidity eats away at tender tissues. If the ulcer gets bad enough, it will erode a blood vessel and bleed; and if it gets to bleeding enough, you go into shock.
Now, if it’s true that emotional distress can eat a hole in your stomach, it can do all kinds of other things as well. Almost every illness has this mixture of purely physical factors — things you can see, like a knife wound or a fractured bone — plus certain chemical factors such as metabolic changes occurring within the body. Almost every disease has associated with it the alterations occurring in the body as the result of the emotional distress that either preceded the illness, accompanied it, or came on because of it.
All of us have physical weak spots, and all of us have emotional weak spots. For instance, some whole families have a tendency toward diabetes. If you were to look at all the members of that family — cousins, aunts, uncles, and so on — you would find a much higher percentage of people with diabetes than in a family that doesn’t have the tendency.
We are also born with relative differences in emotional weakness. You see this in children from their earliest days. There are many people who seem to be born with an absolutely happy personality and there is almost nothing you can do to upset them; they are happy and gay no matter what happens. And there are others who are exactly the opposite: No matter what happens, they are unhappy. You can give such a person a million dollars and he would say, “Oh, well, the government will take practically all of it anyhow.”
People have been tested according to environmental influences — early training and the like — and found to have emotional weaknesses in relation to special things that happen. Some people, for example, would become terribly distressed if you accused them of being homosexual, while others march in the streets proclaiming their homosexuality. These are indications of relative emotional strengths or weaknesses, if you will, and not a judgment of either kind of person.
Probably you are already well aware of such differences in emotional tendencies; you know that some people if threatened with the loss of their job would say, “Thank God, now I can do something else,” while others would go into a severe depression from which they might have trouble recovering. Others would develop a peptic ulcer, and still others might even come down with rheumatoid arthritis. And consider cancer. Even though we know of the existence of chemical and physical factors, psychologists have also known for many years that a patient who develops a flagrant cancerous process often has a distinct personality. Such a person usually tends to be too passive and says, in effect, to the rest of the world, “Go ahead, run over me. I don’t care, everything is going to be all right.” Putting on that kind of face for the rest of the world is an emotional stress. In fact, to some extent, the sweetest people die of cancer. They are just too nice. They are not standing up for themselves on the social scene, nor are they using their own immune mechanisms to fight for their own physical well-being. In fact, statistics have shown that, most often, a major loss of love, such as divorce or death, has occurred within 18 months previous to the onset of the disease.
But there are positive implications to such a notion as well. Dr. Carl Simonton of Texas (Simonton, Carl and Stephanie: Belief Systems and Management of the Emotional Aspects of Malignancy, J. Transpersonal Psychology, 7:29-47, 1975) has demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that emotions can affect cancer, even leading to its disappearance. In a test of over 300 cases, he taught the patients techniques for manipulating mentally their immune mechanisms. The results were that 98 percent of those who practiced the techniques only 15 minutes three times a day experienced a shrinking of their cancers; those patients in his series who did not died of their cancer. All his patients presumably had the same underlying physical problems. Their cancers had been induced by viruses and/or chemicals. Yet there was a difference in what happened to the process, presumably based on what they did about it once started.
Research done over the past half century by the greatest living Canadian scientist, Dr. Hans Selye, has indicated that stress creates a definite biological syndrome. After noting that most diseases, regardless of which ones, have in common certain readily evident signs, for example, loss of appetite and weight, he found in his experimentation more objective proof of disease damage: enlargement of the adrenal glands, shrinkage of the lymphatic structure, and the appearance of gastrointestinal ulcers. Dr. Selye theorized that all these symptoms — the same ones even among different diseases — were all part of the body’s alarm reaction to the disease invasion.
He also found that if the onslaught continues, the body adjusts and goes into what he called the “stage of resistance” or “adaption” during which the body affects normality. But finally, if the stress does not cease, the body becomes exhausted and debilitated from the wear and tear of constant readjustment. This three-stage process Selye called the General Adaption Syndrome, or GAS.
The processes of the GAS include numerous biochemical changes, one of the most widely known of which is the secretion of adrenalin. In addition, stress excited the hypothalamus, which causes the pituitary, the small gland just below it, to increase secretion of the hormone ACTH. That hormone, in turn, stimulates the adrenal cortex to produce corticoids, some of which cause atrophy (wasting away) of the thymus. Through this chain reaction, stress can affect metabolism and body weight. Various ailments are initiated as a result of the derangement in the secretion of these hormones, such as ulcers and stomach upsets, headaches, certain allergies and sinus attacks, and cardiovascular diseases.
Of course, other factors enter into determining the degree of damage done by stress. The way one responds to stress can be attributed in part to such factors as age, sex, and genetic background, or to external condition such as diet or medical treatment. Apparently, those factors make the differences among the levels of stress that can be tolerated by different people before disease sets in.
The biochemical mechanisms that work to counteract stress and to maintain the normal balance of the system are numerous and complex, but, in general, they act either to create a state of tolerance to stress-producing agents or to destroy the agents. Although these reactions are usually appropriate and necessary, sometimes they are inappropriate or excessive. This kind of systemic miscalculation can in itself cause disease. Allergies are a case in point: In an allergic reaction the body is reacting to invasion of foreign particles, that is, the allergens, much more aggressively than is really necessary, considering the dangers the allergens represent. So, you see, even the body’s natural reactions to stress are not above error.
But, though reacting to stress is not only unavoidable but a very necessary element of life, it is possible to avoid overreactions by first understanding the workings of stress. Then it’s necessary to establish a philosophy of life and a style of living to allow for your adjusting more readily to the inevitable stressful situations that go along with being alive.
Rest assured that it is definitely possible to regulate your reaction to stress. And the more you learn to control such reactions, the happier and healthier you should be. It is essential, of course, that you always seek proper medical care for any real illness. Self-diagnosis or treatment of any symptom or disease is not recommended.

Watch Dr. Norm Shealy live on the Gaiam Inspirations streaming event Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012, 7 pm CST on to learn more about Biogenics®, Dr. Shealy’s system of mental exercises designed to help you learn to regulate your own body functioning at will. Find out more about Dr. Shealy at

Excerpt reprinted with permission from 90 Days to Self-Health ©1977 Shealy Classics.

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