Therapy, Mediation, and Health

Therapy, mediation, and health     An increasing body of evidence gained over the last few decades has made it increasingly clear that emotions and state of mind have a powerful effect on physical as well as mental health. These effects can be both positive and negative. Depression, anxiety, hostility, chronic stress, and social isolation have all been shown to have damaging effects on health, particularly with regard to problems involving the heart and cardiovascular system, including heart attacks, strokes and high blood pressure. Chronic stress can damage neurons in the brain, interfering with memory and other cognitive functions. Other factors relating to emotion and state of mind, including social connection, have been shown to have protective effects on cardiac health. Owning a dog, for instance, is associated with decreased risk of cardiac problems. It seems likely that one of the stress-reducing things about owning a dog is knowing that he won’t ever argue with you! Social and emotional factors also affect our immune systems. Expressing emotion, especially emotion about traumatic events, has been shown to strengthen immune function and to lessen the symptoms of asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, which are both immune-related problems. 
     Many of the emotional and social factors that can affect health play themselves out in our relationships with other people. For many people, relationship problems are among life’s most stressful experiences. It has long been known that marriage, for example, can have a powerful effect on health, especially for men. Married men, on average, live longer than men who are single, divorced, or widowed. Just being married, of course, is not the whole story. Research by psychology professor John Gottman at the University of Washington has shown that fights between spouses cause physiologic as well as emotional turmoil. The consequences of these physiological storms on health are usually minor if they happen infrequently, but chronic fighting sets the stage for cardiac and immune problems. No research that I know of has investigated the relationship between health and prolonged parent-child conflict, but it seems likely that it could have the same negative effects on health that marital conflict does. 
     What does this have to do with therapy and mediation? Both processes can help to resolve interpersonal problems that cause us to experience relationships as a source of stress rather than as a source of support. Even when health problems are intractable, such as with chronic illnesses or end of life issues, resolving conflict and improving clarity in important relationships can reduce symptoms, improve the quality of life, and allow a greater sense of peace for both the ill person and those who are close to them. Resolving relationship problems can be mentally and physically beneficial for everyone, regardless of their current state of health.