The idea that illness may have psychological roots has historically been marginalized by the scientifically minded. The inability to physically measure emotions, left them outside the mandate of western scientific exploration.
Consideration of emotion has often been seen as a threat to the legitimacy of illness. The term psychosomatic has been misconstrued to imply that the illness is in fact imaginary. In reality psychosomatic is an acknowledgement of the very real interactions between mind and body.
What are the Physical correlates of Emotion?
Research by Candace Pert – a research professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at Georgetown University Medical Centre in Washington – has demonstrated that molecules of emotion can be measured and identified in your body — as physical matter.
Pert started out doing research to find out how drugs work, how they make change in your physical body. What she discovered was called an opiate receptor, the sense organs of your cells. The opiate receptor acts as keyhole waiting for chemical keys to come along and offer information to your cells.
After finding the receptor, scientists were able to start identifying the keys. The chemical keys are called ligands. Ligands float around your internal biosphere and convey information by connecting to opiate receptors and downloading information into your cells.
Three different kinds of ligand
- Neurotransmitters – Chemicals that are generally made in your brain to carry information across the gap between one neuron and the next. Neurons are cells in your central nervous system. Thus, neurotransmitters do their work in your central nervous system.
- Steroids – This category includes the sex hormones responsible for male and female characteristics, stress responses and immune response among other things.
- Peptides – Peptides are chemical compounds that attach to receptors and effect your emotional state. Each peptide is associated with a particular emotion. Pert calls peptides molecules of emotion. She says that 95% of all ligands are peptides.
Communication is not limited to the brain and spinal cord
Traditionally science agreed that emotion is controlled by your limbic system located in your brain. It was understood that your emotions were conveyed from one neuron to the next via the synaptic gap.
Initial research by Pert showed that 85-95% of peptides have receptors in the emotional part of your brain, your limbic system. This information seemed to confirm the idea that your body was a machine controlled by your brain.
However, it was later discovered that peptides and their receptors are not only communicating across the synaptic gap and they also are not communicating exclusively in your central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).
In fact, another neuroscientist Miles Herkenham, estimated that less than 2% of neuronal communication actually occurs at the synapse — 98% non-synaptic communication.
This non-synaptic communication is communication that occurs between a peptide and its specified receptor across much larger distances than the synaptic gap. The receptor can feel the vibration of the peptide without being in close proximity to it. Thus, communication occurs with or without physical proximity.
Moreover, peptides and their receptors are not limited to the central nervous system. They can be found throughout the body allowing communication across systems . Often the brain is last to know what is happening.
Communication: Conscious and Unconscious
SO, you have peptides circulating through your body fluids and conveying information to your cells. The information sets up a network of mutual feedback loops between your body and your mind. The feedback loops make dialogue possible between your conscious and unconscious experiences.
Within these feedback loops, peptides/emotions control communication between your body and your mind. The communication occurs not only from your brain down into your body, but also, from your body into other systems, such as endocrine, organs and your brain.
Information conveyed to the cells via peptides effects your body by altering your cellular composition. When your peptides are out of balance it can cause physical changes and symptoms influencing your health. You are not choosing to cause illness in yourself. This change is unconscious.
Concurrently, the vibration of a particular peptide effects your emotional state (conscious or accessible to the conscious). Health enhancing emotions like love, laughter and optimism convey information to the cells that have a tonic effect i.e.. They release positive hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin.
Health degrading emotions such as shame, guilt and anger cause your body to release stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline which can, in large amounts, over time, cause negative effects on your organs.
When you experience emotion, there is a physical felt sense or vibration that you can be conscious of. Paying attention to the inner sensations of your emotions will bring awareness to various parts of your body. This awareness is a portal for dialogue between your conscious experience of emotion and your unconscious cellular activity.
Does this mean you should avoid so called negative emotions? No! It means you should allow your self to feel them. Close your eyes, focus and immerse yourself in the sensation/feeling of emotion. Practice identifying the physical correlates of your emotions.
After you have felt the emotion, learn to name it to tame it. Be specific. A feeling in your chest might start out general then evolve to sinking, tight and solid. Explore optional descriptors. Is it sad, anxious, angry, dread…?
Keep going until you know you are right. Right feels like a bit of relief, acknowledgement. Often, more than one descriptor will be right and each will offer a bit more relief.
Once you have named an emotion you can find healthy ways to express it rather than repress it. If options for healthy expression don’t come to mind, share your awareness with a safe friend or therapist. Brainstorm until you come up with something that feels respectful.
Negative emotions are motivating factors to help you honour your highest worth. Healthy expression will make your internal biosphere less likely to repeatedly call forth negative emotions. Thus, your organs will not suffer the effects of its chronic presence.
When you understand molecules of emotion as conveyors of information at a cellular level, as communicators of information between cells and across body systems, it becomes apparent that the presence of emotion is instructive. It is there to tell you something about yourself and to move you in the direction of personal growth.
The presence of emotion/peptides is not solely about psychology, it is about your physical person as well. Your body-mind is a self-regulating system and paying attention to emotion is a vital part of obtaining/maintaining good health.