Scientific View of Emotions & Their Implications on Health

BY MICHELLE TAFOYA | EMOTIONS

Humans are the most powerful beings on the globe. Ever since human evolution, technological advancements, and scientific discoveries began to revamp the world, humans have managed to control and conquer the world with the power of the mind and of course the weapons.

But why is that these people, (famous celebrities, doctors, children, parents, and almost everybody) fail to overcome their Emotions, at times, and let this instinctive feeling or sentiment rule their mental power?

Strange, isn’t it? 

And surprisingly, different types of emotions rule our daily life when scrutinized closely. 

On a daily basis, we make decisions based on our mood: whether we are happy, sad, annoyed, angry, or bored.

We sometimes act upon situations based on emotional incites. 

By this, we can simply say that the abstract feeling of emotions is derived from one’s circumstances, mood or relationship with others and differentiates itself from reasoning and knowledge. 

So today, let’s just know more about emotions, how they are triggered, what stimulates them, and the negative impact they have on our health.

Emotions and its Distinctive Components

An emotion is a complex psychological state that encircles behavioral, physiological, and subjective reactions that are universal in nature, quite independent of culture and generate changes in affective experience, physiological activation, and expressive behavior.

It is a multidimensional experience, to a certain degree, pleasant or unpleasant, that provides for action based on three response systems: 

  • Cognitive/subjective
  • Behavioral/expressive 
  • Physiological/adaptive 

While the physiological component of emotion aims at the physical activation and preparation of the organism and involves changes in the activity of the person’s nervous system and endocrine system, the behavioral-expressive component is characterized by the presence of behavioral, postural changes, facial expression.

Cognitive-experiential, apart from these two, is characterized by subjective experimentation of emotion and thoughts.

Let’s dig deep into the set of affective reactions and get familiar to them one by one and see how can we relate these with our mental state:

Neurophysiological and Biochemical Responses

Emotional processes are closely linked to physiological ones. The biological bases of emotions include various areas of the brain, the autonomic nervous system, and the endocrine system.

For example, in fear, the heart rate increases, breathing accelerates, pupils dilate, hands sweat, muscles tense, adrenaline segregation occurs, an increase in blood glucose is witnessed.

The autonomic nervous system controls the involuntary body responses(like blood flow, digestion) and the sympathetic part of the system is responsible for controlling the fight or flight reactions (like in case of a threat, these abstract responses to either flee from danger or face it head-on.)

Behavioral or Expressive Component

It includes both non-verbal and verbal body behaviors.

Non-Verbal relates to body language: facial expressions, body movements, approach-avoidance behavior.

Verbal analogs intonation of the voice, intensity, sounds, etc.

This component of emotion is highly influenced by sociocultural and educational factors that can modulate emotional expression. Thus, emotional expression varies throughout the person’s ontogenetic development, with adults exercising greater emotional control than children.

On the other hand, social rules modulate emotional expression because they facilitate or inhibit manifestation according to the context in which the emotional experience takes place. For example, we jump for joy if our team wins and we inhibit our anger at work in front of a superior.

Cognitive Component or the Subjective Experience

This component of emotions is related to the affective experience and with the fact of perceiving the emotion itself and the situation in which it is triggered, of experiencing the emotion itself and with the evaluation of the said situation. 

It refers to subjective states classified as pleasant or unpleasant and with the conscious recognition that is made of the emotional state, for example saying that “I am happy” or “I feel guilty.”

Experiencing emotions can be highly subjective as a person does not always experience the pure and real forms of each emotion which either occur simultaneously or one after another. Say when you start a new job you may feel excited and nervous both and witness a mixed feeling that might range from joy to anxiety.

The Body Map of Emotions

In a recent study 701 participants of various nationalities were asked to point out in a drawing of a human figure the areas of the body that were activated by feeling a certain emotional state and in another figure, the areas where they felt less activation, through a color code (warm colors = activation, cold = deactivation). 

To do this, they were presented with words, stories, movies, and facial expressions that represented 6 basic or primary emotions (anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, and surprise) and 7 secondary or complex ones (collected in the image).

The results obtained in this experiment confirmed that we are able to locate variations in the emotional state in different areas of the body anatomy, regardless of the nationality of the subject.

With the results obtained, the following “Body Map of Emotions” was  published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Most basic emotions are associated with feelings of high activity in the upper chest area, which corresponds to changes in breathing and heart rate.

The sensations in the digestive system and around the throat were present in disgust. In contrast to other emotions, happiness activates practically the whole body, giving the feeling of “fullness”. 

On the other hand, in depression, the body seems deactivated and suggests a “vacuum” that is concentrated in the chest.

In love and anger, the extremities are reflected, perhaps because at that moment, you are ready to hug or hit. 

In anxiety, energy is concentrated from the trunk to the head, while the limbs remain inactive.

Negative Emotions & their Impact on Our Health

Emotions are psychophysiological reactions that we all experience on a daily basis even if we are not always aware of it.

Fear-anxiety, anger, sadness-depression, and disgust are basic emotional reactions that are characterized by an unpleasant or negative affective experience and high physiological activation. The first three are the most studied emotions in relation to the health-disease process.

Emotions are considered adaptive and will depend on the evaluation that the person makes of the stimulus, that is, on the meaning that it gives to it, and on the coping response that it generates. There are objectively disturbing emotional stimuli that may not have prior injury, and on the contrary, other apparently innocuous emotional stimuli can cause more or less significant damage. The difference between the two possibilities lies in the perception that each person has of these stimuli.

Depending on this perception, a maladaptive response may

arise, that is, we remain indefinitely angry, sad, anxious or terrified, once the initial stimulus has disappeared; with the consequent overstraining, unsustainable over time, and an extra cost in the form of health, physical and mental disorder.

The study authors suggest that evidence of the role the body plays in the emotional process can help us understand changes in mood states, as well as serve as biomarkers of emotional disorders.

  • When experiencing intense anger, sadness, anxiety or depression, behavioral changes tend to occur that causes us to abandon healthy habits such as balanced diet, physical exercise or social life and replace them with others such as sedentary lifestyle or addictions (tobacco, alcohol) to counteract or eliminate these emotional experiences.
  • Prolonged emotional reactions over time maintain intense levels of physiological activation that can impair our health if they become chronic: activation of the autonomic nervous system with elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, increased muscle tension, central neurotransmission dysfunction, activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis with disturbance of circadian rhythms of cortisol, etc. This high physiological activation may be associated with a certain degree of immunosuppression, making us more vulnerable to the development of infectious or immune-type diseases.

In relation to cardiovascular disorders, several studies have shown that depression is a significant risk factor for coronary heart disease, myocardial infarction, and cardiac mortality, and has also been associated with a worse outcome in coronary patients.

Another factor associated with cardiovascular disorders has been anger-hostility-aggression syndrome. Studies found that high expression of anger was associated with the presence of coronary artery disease, while anger/hostility features were associated with increased symptoms, especially chest pain not associated with angina in women without coronary artery disease. 

Finally, the World Health Organization has recognized the relevant role that stress can play in hypertension, although it also accepts the difficulty of quantifying this influence on the development of the disease.

In short, there is a close relationship between emotions and health. The reaction to certain situations and emotions are different in each individual.

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