How Your Feelings Affect Your Body

Your emotions have a much bigger impact on your physical health than you might think

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Your emotions have a much bigger impact on your physical health than you might think

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Your body experiences a surge of testosterone and your heart rate and blood pressure increase.

The health risk: You’re almost five times more likely to have a heart attack in the two hours after an angry outburst, and your risk of stroke is three times higher. And anger motivates us to seek rewards, which is why a glass of wine might look more appealing than ever.

Regain control by: Asking yourself if you’re hungry. Hunger reduces the brain’s serotonin levels, which affects our ability to regulate anger, so to avoid losing your temper, don’t skip meals. And try using your non-dominant hand as much as possible – people who did that for 14 days were better at controlling their aggression.

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About things before they happen or when you make a mistake, the decision-making part of your brain struggles, forcing other brain regions to work harder.

The health risk: Your brain won’t perform as well on everyday tasks and gets fatigued quickly. Plus, if worrying raises your stress levels, your risk of Alzheimer’s rises, with research proving that women who tick both of those boxes double their dementia risk.

Regain control by: Writing down what’s worrying you, which physically clears brain space for other tasks. And don’t shelve the worry – suppressing it increases anxiety.

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Or envious, your brain’s anterior cingulate cortex fires up. The same region is activated by socially painful situations, like being ostracised by friends, which explains why jealousy evokes such strong reactions. And if you’re taking a contraceptive pill that contains oestrogen, your response could be even greater.

The health risk: Jealousy makes you blind to objects in your line of sight because your brain is distracted by processing its green-eyed thoughts. That’s dangerous during tasks that demand attention and carry a risk, like driving.

Regain control by: Turning “malicious envy” (the bitter variety) into “benign envy” (think: “If they can do it, I can too”). Dutch research confirms the shift in thinking translates into real results. And have a social media detox. More than 30 per cent of users feel frustrated when they visit Facebook and the biggest reason is envy of friends’ posts.

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Your brain increases production of the hormone oxytocin and triggers a network of brain neurons, simultaneously suppressing the network you use to analyse things.

The health kick: Feeling empathetic increases how generous you feel towards other people, which improves your health and your life span. You’ll feel happier on average, too.

Increase the feeling by: Reading a book. As long as it’s fictional, reading gives the brain’s empathetic region a workout.

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Your body is flooded with adrenalin and norepinephrine, which makes your heart beat faster, and cortisol, which shuts down non-essential body functions. And your brain’s prefrontal cortex suffers, so paying attention and thinking clearly become difficult. Long-term stress switches on genes that are normally silent, upsetting the body’s balance of hormones.

The health risk: You’ll make riskier decisions and might develop sleep bruxism, so you grind your teeth at night. You’ll also get more headaches and are more likely to catch a virus. In the long term, stress increases the risk of agerelated memory loss, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and depression.

Regain control by: Doing more exercise. Physical activity reorganises the brain to be more resilient to stress, by training it to automatically switch off regions that promote anxiety when it’s exposed to stressful situations.

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Your brain strengthens structures linked with social awareness and empathy, and the region that processes rewards.

The health kick: Feeling grateful equals feeling happier. Verbalising it by saying thanks not just rids you of toxic emotions, but can boost your relationships.

Increase the feeling by: Writing down five things you’re grateful for every week. You will feel 25 per cent happier in just 10 weeks. And get enough sleep - sleep deprivation has been discovered to have a link with the tendency to feel ungrateful.

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The parts of the brain responsible for being able to think positively (the rostral anterior cingulate cortex and amygdala) fire up.

The health kick: Positivity improves your immune cells’ response to virus or bacteria. You’ll also find it easier to make healthy food choices because feeling optimistic about the future boosts self-control.

Increase the feeling by: Watching a funny movie. After just 15 minutes your “hopefulness score” will be higher. Researchers say it works because humour inhibits negative thoughts.

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Your brain releases a combination of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. And levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, fall.

The health kick: You’ll stay healthier and live longer. Plus, compared to happy people, unhappy ones are 80 per cent more likely to develop age-related health problems.

Increase the feeling by: Playing some upbeat music and making a conscious decision to be happier – done together, it’s a combination that works. Or catch up with a friend. That increases production of progesterone, a hormone that boosts feelings of well-being.

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Your body produces adrenalin and norepinephrine in the early days, which make your heart race, and dopamine to make you feel euphoric. Oxytocin and vasopressin, which create feelings of well-being and security, take over in established relationships to maintain the bond.

The health kick: Newly paired couples have a higher pain threshold because intense love stimulates areas of the brain targeted by painkillers. In the long term, love reduces your heart-disease risk and protects against a middle-age decline in life satisfaction. It also minimises how much cortisol you produce under stress.

Increase the feeling by: Watching and talking about movies with your partner where relationships are the focus. When couples did this five times for one month they improved their relationships and halved their risk of splitting up. Single? Book in for a massage or hug a dog – both strategies increase oxytocin levels, the hormone responsible for a lot of love’s health benefits.

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A few different brain regions are activated, including one that subconsciously spurs you to do nice things for the person you’ve wronged, even before you’re ready to own up or apologise.

The health risk: Guilt makes you feel physically heavier so you’ll avoid exercise, say US researchers. You’ll also focus on small details at the expense of the bigger picture, so instead of declining a chocolate bar, you’ll scrutinise the calorie content of different bars, before picking one to eat.

Regain control by: Owning up to whatever’s making you feel guilty, but make sure you spill all the beans. Confessing does provide relief, but guilt escalates when you only tell the partial truth.