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Emotions Affect Your Body (and Why That’s a Good Thing)

What if your feelings showed up as physical symptoms? Well, it’s not just a what if; it’s a reality. Emotions do affect your body. In this blog post you’ll see proof that emotions do show up as physical symptoms and you’ll learn how to use that to help yourself feel better today.

women talking about emotions

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Imagine the last time you were really nervous about something. Did you start sweating? Did your stomach twist and turn? Did you have a hard time sitting still?

If so, you’re totally normal.

But. Have you ever thought about how those things are a physical occurrence that happened in your body because of an emotion you were feeling?

Interesting, right?

Emotions Affect Your Body

Emotions affect our bodies. We see it all the time. When a person gets embarrassed, their face often turns red. People cry when they feel sad. Stress causes ulcers. 

Think about when you’re camping in the wilderness and have to find a log to squat by when you need to go. It takes a second for anything to happen because you’re uncomfortable, right?

Emotions affect your body.

Have you ever had a hard time falling asleep because you’re excited or nervous about the next day? Or what about the opposite – have you ever felt extra sleepy because you’re sad or frustrated or overwhelmed?

Emotions affect your body.

What about anxiety? Anyone who’s experienced chronic anxiety – or knows someone who has – knows that anxiety can cause real physical symptoms like chest pain, headaches, trouble sleeping, and an upset stomach.

Emotions definitely affect your body.

What Science is Saying

Aside from examples of when emotions affect our body that we can all recognize, like how certain songs or experiences can give us goosebumps, science has its own two cents to contribute.

The Second Brain

You’ve probably heard people talk about gut health. But did you know that there’s science showing that emotions play a role in gut health? It’s called the “gut-brain axis.”

Dr. Will Cole, a leading functional medicine expert and practitioner, explains that the brain and the gut are formed from the same fetal tissue and remain connected throughout a person’s entire life.

That connection means that what’s going on in our stomach and intestines ties directly to our mental and emotional well-being. Physiologically, it’s because the communication pathways between the brain and the gut are bidirectional (meaning it goes both ways). And, therefore, anything from one can affect the other.

Communication happens through the microorganisms present in the immune, endocrine (hormone), and nervous systems. The way it works is over my head, but I believe it; emotions affect your body, even your gut.

The physical side of the gut-brain connection includes things like chronic heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome, and extreme menstrual symptoms. The emotions those problems are linked to are often struggles like anxiety and depression as well as things like stress response and memory function.

It’s not just the gut that is affected by emotions though.

Your Nervous System: (Un)Balanced

Another physical-emotional connection that has been studied is what is called “nervous system dysregulation.” The nervous system includes two balancing parts called the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. 

The sympathetic system controls what we call the “fight-or-flight” response. The parasympathetic system controls what we call “rest and digest.” Clearly, we need both.

These two systems alone are a great example of how emotions affect our body.

Imagine you’re hiking in the mountains and suddenly you see a bear. What happens in your body? Your muscles tense up, your heart beats faster, and your pupils dilate. Your whole being is focused on one thing: not getting attacked by the bear.

That’s your fight-or-flight response kicking in. It’s your sympathetic nervous system.

In addition to the physical responses, your hormones spike, specifically cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine – your stress hormones.

And that’s a normal, healthy response.

Your elevated physical awareness and the heightened levels of hormones will help you figure out how not to get eaten by the bear. Then, once you’re safe again, your parasympathetic nervous system – “rest and digest” – will kick in to return everything to normal and help you calm down.

A State of Chronic Stress

But what if that “bear” is someone you live with. What if every day when you come home from school or work your body is triggered and responds in that same way – tense muscles, increased heart rate, slowed digestive processes, elevated cortisol levels? 

Or what if that “bear” is your phone. You scroll through Instagram and feel more and more pressure to look different and do more. You spend time on TikTok and see all the ways you could improve your look or your mindset or your social life and feel overwhelmed by how far you feel you have to go. 

That is nervous system dysregulation; that’s when problems happen. Your body is in fight-or-flight mode so often that the parasympathetic system can’t keep up and you remain in a chronically stressed state. 

When that happens, major depressive disorder can result. The same imbalance is thought to contribute to other health conditions such as fibromyalgia, migraines, fainting, diabetes, and more.

So maybe there really is something to this “chronic stress” that everybody’s talking about.

Your Heart Really Does Feel

As one final example of how emotions affect our body, let’s look at the heart. We often associate the heart with feeling in a metaphorical way, but now we have proof that our hearts really are affected by emotion.

For example, anger and worry literally cause heart problems. Persistent worriers have an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and strokes – anywhere from 40% to 134% higher risk than people who worry less!

Simple Symbols

Now, that’s all well and good. But what if the way emotions affect our body is even simpler than that?

I believe it is.

It comes down to symbols. Our brains love symbols. That’s why our world is full of icons and graphics – it works better for our minds. 

Because our minds love symbols, our bodies respond to that preference. Our body wants us to resolve physical issues and emotional struggles. It communicates with us. We just have to learn to speak it’s language.

Pain in the Neck

Here’s what I mean. Have you ever called someone a pain in the neck? Sometimes, that’s more literal than you think. 

I have a friend whose husband had a period of time where his neck was often stiff and in pain. He was managing a store at the time. His wife (my friend), knowing what she did about how emotions affect our bodies, asked him who was being a pain in the neck in his life.

He told her about a few people, mostly employees, who certainly fit in that category.

As they talked, he started to realize that he and his employees had different upbringings and that his employees were probably doing the best that they could. He started to feel compassion for his employees instead of irritation.

As soon as he changed his perspective, something changed physically. He turned his head to one side and then the other and, shocked, said, “My neck doesn’t hurt anymore! That’s freaky!”

Freaky though it may seem, it works. 

A Weak Back

I had a similar experience not too long ago. I was helping someone move, carrying boxes from the moving truck into the house. I’ve never been super into strength training, so I wasn’t able to carry the heavier things or as many items as others were. 

As time went on, my back started to hurt. I was being really careful with how I was lifting, so I was sure it wasn’t an injury.

I took a break to talk to my husband and my mother-in-law and I quickly realized I was feeling weak and useless. I wanted to be of more help and be able to carry lots of heavy things. 

And I’d felt that way before, trying to help others move. Once I realized that, I could see how silly that was. I was being helpful, even if I couldn’t lift as much as the men.

Almost immediately, the back pain was gone.

Hormonal Life Imbalance 

What about less obvious issues, like extreme PMS symptoms? People are talking about hormone imbalance, but is it really just a hormonal thing?

Like I said, our bodies communicate with us through symbols. An imbalance of hormones probably represents an imbalance of something in your life.

It could be struggling to balance a career and family life. Or maybe it’s an imbalance between who you feel like you really are and who the world sees when they look at you.

If you can address that, your hormones will likely respond and regulate themselves. 

In this podcast episode, Cody Sanders, a holistic health practitioner and founder of MixHers, talks about how stress is a leading cause behind hormone imbalance. (And stress is often an imbalance between competing priorities, amiright?)

I’m telling you, the body is fluent in symbolism. You might be surprised how intuitive this kind of thing is.

Pain is Communication

It’s also worth noting here that pain isn’t always a negative thing. Pain is communication; it’s your body saying, “Hey, pay attention to this!”

In labor and childbirth, pain is your body saying, “Hey, this process requires your full attention.” It can also communicate, “You need to change positions now” or “Stop pushing so you don’t tear” and more.

In the context of emotions and your body, pain is your body asking for help.

It knows that emotions, buried or unresolved, will harm your body and mind, so it tells you in the only way it knows how. Your shoulder starts to hurt because your body knows you don’t feel strong enough to handle what’s going on in life right now and changing that belief is the only way to move forward.

What Does This Mean For Me

So why does this all matter for you? How does knowing that emotions affect your body apply to your day-to-day? Simple. You have more power than you think. 

How often have you gone to the doctor just for them to say they don’t know what’s wrong? Or maybe they give you a “bandaid fix” – a general antibiotic or something to get rid of the pain – but nothing that seems like it will really solve the problem?

It’s not because doctors are bad people – the truth is most of them really just don’t have training in any kind of preventative practices. Medical school is all about surgeries and diseases and emergencies. It’s not about nutrition and exercise and emotional health.

But that doesn’t mean your knee pain or your crazy menstrual cycles or anything else are now your lot in life, for the rest of your life.

YOU have the power to change it. 

Five Questions

I’ve heard it said that 90% of physical problems are rooted in emotional struggles. I think that statistic is rather encouraging. If your emotions are causing your physical pains, who better than you to resolve those emotions and help yourself feel better.

Many physical ailments can be resolved by asking yourself five simple questions.

I’ve found it to be most effective to address these kinds of things in a conversation with someone I trust, like my husband. A good friend, a parent, a coach, or a therapist could all be good people to talk with, too.

Here are the five questions.

  1. What is the function of this body part physically?
  2. What problem in my life could be represented by the dysfunction of that body part?
  3. How does that make me feel?
  4. What does that emotion remind me of?
  5. How can I see that memory differently so I can feel better?
table showing five questions to resole physical pain triggered by emotions

The key here is to practice self-awareness, and that requires a lot of vulnerability. It can be hard and uncomfortable to examine your thoughts and feelings and follow your intuition, but once you see the results, it’ll be more worth it than you can imagine.

Finding Truth and Extending Forgiveness

Often, once you realize an emotion is causing you physical pain, you need to change the way you see something or feel about something to resolve the issue. Most of the time, that change requires one of two things (or both): finding truth or extending forgiveness.

Forgiveness

Say for example that your joints hurt when you try to exercise. Joints can represent something that isn’t working well together, something dysfunctional perhaps.

Maybe you feel like your family relationships are dysfunctional and your body is telling you that that needs attention by causing your joints to hurt.

In this instance, forgiveness might be needed. Recognizing that imperfect people make mistakes and choosing to let go of hurtful things in the past might just be the key to getting rid of your joint pain. 

In every instance, whether we’re talking about emotions in your body or not, forgiveness really isn’t for the other person – it’s for us. It frees the forgiver from the control a grudge has on them. It allows for peace and even compassion.

And, to go right along with the rest of this blog post, forgiveness has actual health benefits too!

Finding Truth

Often the emotions that affect our bodies are coming from beliefs that aren’t true. Let’s say your foot has been hurting. Feet can sometimes be symbolic of not feeling worthy. 

Maybe you just had your first kid and you feel unworthy to be a mom because you feel so painfully imperfect.

What you need here is truth. The truth is that you are imperfect AND that that’s okay because the point of parenting isn’t to be perfect. The point is to learn and to grow and to become and to love.

No one would be worthy to be a parent if it were based on perfection. But it’s not; it’s based on the trust that God our Father has in us to do our best. It’s not a matter of worthiness; it’s a matter of love.

You Have the Power

So now you know: emotions affect your body.

In the end, what it comes down to is this: You aren’t broken. Your body isn’t messed up. Your pain isn’t permanent. You have the power to change how you feel – emotionally and physically. And you can start today.

Until next time,

Allison

P.S. While we’re on the topic, learning to talk about your emotions is one of the best ways you can prepare for postpartum and the emotional roller coaster it brings. I talk more about that in How to Prepare for Postpartum: The Ultimate Guide.

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