How Emotions Make Us Ill

One becomes used to being hard up, as one becomes used to everything else, by the help of that wonderful old homeopathic doctor, Time.”

(Jerome K. Jerome, 1859 – 1927, English writer and humorist)

How Emotions Make Us Ill – Part One


The state of stress, all stressor events and thoughts, regardless of whether due to an actual imminent threat or perceived danger, loneliness and despair that may preoccupy our mind, or fear of possible loss, anxieties over the past, the present and the future –invariably affect the hypothalamus – pituitary gland – adrenal glands triad, and from there the functioning of the body as a whole.

Stress - How Emotions Make Us Ill
Stress – How Emotions Make Us Ill

So you were right! In this article we cannot but look into one of the most complex fields of conventional medicine – endocrinology. For most of the progressive figures in medicine this is the science of the future. Someday, not too far ahead, when we have fathomed out the workings of our brains, we will have figured out too how to get healed without external interventions. Effectively every human body is a walking laboratory able to analyze and correct itself! And with amazing precision and speed too, completely error-proof and without any ‘adverse reactions.’

Impulsively, and quite naturally, the average person would gladly skip the topic of endocrinology, once it comes around, because the topic is so complicated. It involves plenty of mouthfuls of terms and it baffles us with the vast amount of unfamiliar matter. The latter does not mean that there is no robust and reliable body of knowledge and evidence as to how things work. In this article we will try to explain in a simple way the key endocrine interactions and translate them into wholesome rules that can be easily followed to substantially improve our health and ultimately the quality of life.

Our Brain Rules

The brain is responsible for every single thing taking place in our body. The brain is the boss. Yet our brain is a boss of a type nowhere near the type of bosses we have come across. The brain is a far better one. It sees and hears everything, knows everything, and is able to do anything in the best possible way. The brain is so sophisticated that it is high time we paid it due respect. Our conscious self is but a tiny part of all the capabilities the brain possesses and manages.

Let us see why we can assume that we get ill due to external factors such as viruses, pathogenic bacteria, parasites and fungal infections, yet we are rather unwilling to accept that we get sick mostly due to the products of our own brain. We have not allowed the brain to do this. Who would?! No one! The brain works with us, and against us. It is forced to do the latter because it has no choice. The present series of articles focuses on these processes. What are the ways in which we harm ourselves? How can we avoid stress? How can we have a healthy and happy life?

Chronology and Evolution

Prehistoric cave and rock paintings from around the world
Prehistoric cave and rock paintings from around the world

In order to better understand what happens in our bodies we first need to look back in time and see what our evolution looks. Some three million years ago the human brain started rapidly growing in volume and mass. The then humans started discovering tools and did one very important thing – they started banding together in larger tribal groups. Before that they would live in a hostile environment relatively isolated, one to five families in a cave. Yet they did realize that a larger group allows for more efficient distribution of daily tasks and ultimately better chances for survival.

More people would imply more communication and social skills that were previously unknown to them. And, speaking of social skills and socialization, emotions play a prominent role. Until three and a half million years ago, the human brain underwent exponential growth, tripling in size relative to the size of the brain of earlier hominines. The brain of the ‘humans’ who lived three million years ago was the size of present-day chimps.

Sometimes, it takes doing something to understanding it.
Sometimes, it takes doing something to understanding it.

Bigger Brain – Bigger Capacity

This growth of the brain started off slowly only to reach its peak at the time our predecessors began discovering animal breeding and agriculture. This led to a massive and far-reaching change of lives of humans. We were no longer hunters and gatherers; new skills emerged, some as a cumulative result of abilities developed earlier. Humans realized that land cultivation and animal breeding provide more and better food.  These factors also allowed humans to settle, rather than migrate frequently in search of unexploited hunting and gathering grounds. The first villages emerged at the time, people gradually learning building skills to better fend for themselves and protect the livestock and harvested supplies alike. Occupations emerged due to specialization of skills, and the first parables, songs and rites followed suit, as structured expressions of emotions.

Both the range and value of human skills and the social characteristics of communities from the Neolithic era (c. 9,000 years BC) evolved. The new occupations included artisans, live-stock breeders, clothes-makers, leatherers, farmers, etc. Once they started exchanging items they produced, commerce came into existence. This lasted until the Chalcolithic (also known as the Eneolithic or Aeneolithic) when the processing of metals furthered human inventions. In social terms people had to adopt behaviors that were acceptable in the tribes they lived in, as living on one’s own spelled death.

Our Social Design

Desmond Morris, zoologist, ethnologist and renowned author in the area of social biology, with numerous awards and distinctions, studied humans from the perspective of an animal species (‘The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal’). He is author of numerous other books and films and explores the social development of many tribes and peoples with most diverse cultures. Morris posits that for humans it is not natural to live in large communities. The ideal groups for modern humans that would allow them to live a full and happy life should not exceed 200 persons.

In such a community everybody knows everybody but at the same time they acknowledge others; this acknowledgement is not perceived as a burden. In contrast, in larger cities, people are essentially strangers and opt to act as ones. Every day we would come across many strangers and we cannot possibly greet them all. We tend to regard them as trees in a forest we go through. Large urban settings do not imply that all people have universally acceptable behavior. The larger the society we live in, the more depersonalized our interactions tend to be. And vice versa – in the small town or village communities tend to be more tight-knit and its members are more likely to respect the opinion of others.

From an exhibition on "The Man-Animal"
From an exhibition on “The Man-Animal”

Ethnography – the Social Signature of a People

But let us go back to the past. Each civilization and culture, even every human tribe, has its own social rules. People did not just labor together but they also engaged in social activities, of varying intensity, to promote the community spirit and help them feel happy for belonging to that particular group (or village, or civilization, for that matter). Also, in the past the work people did was seldom as monotonous as today. It varied by type or season. The cultivation of the land and farming would imply different types of labor – plowing, sowing, harvesting, etc. The relevant social activities were an inalienable part of those occupations too.

During harvesting in the fields, people sang. There were special rituals to pray for rain during times of drought or for better catch in the sea; there were rites to chase away evil spirits, to summon good ones, for healing or honoring the deceased. The entire human life was structured around various and repetitive daily social rites and practices. Nobody lived like we do nowadays. Even hermits tended to be more social than urban residents of today. What is our everyday life like? Hectic and stressful? Monotonous and boring. And at the end of the day we enjoy social thrills in front of the telly. This is a far cry from dancing in the center of the village or listening to a tale that would stir the imagination into vivid pictures that today we get ‘prefabricated’ from the TV.

Our skills of communicating and socializing essentially evolve. And our emotions result from every foolish whim or impulse of our imagination. Emotions are for our own consumption alone; society does not need them. This shows how worthwhile it is to explore in detail the ways in which emotions can make us ill.

Part Two of ‘How Emotions Make Us Ill’ – Emotions = Hormones

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