Let’s start off with some friendly banter: how are you feeling today? A little jazzed from that coffee you drank? A little motivated? A little lonely? Maybe a little bit of everything?
Scientists continue to find that our emotions play a much larger role in our physical wellness than we ever thought. Brain function, cardiovascular performance, muscle tension, fat retention, and several other physical processes can be both helped and hindered by our emotional states. And if you’ve ever received a huge promotion at work or gone through a tough break up, you’ve seen how your body seems to have a mind of its own when processing non-physical stimuli.
So, let’s ask again: how are you feeling today? Because we’re going to take a closer look at how your body reacts to different emotional states– and, in the process, learn what you can do to reduce the physical symptoms of stress, loneliness, or depression through healthy means. Feel free to skip around to the sections that you find most useful, slip on a mood ring, and let’s get sciencey!
Certain studies have claimed that, on a normal day, the average person will experience positive emotions nearly twice as often as negative ones. Happiness has been reported to be the most prominently felt, and it’s the emotion we find ourselves pursuing the most. So, what does being happy look like– both internally and externally?
On the Inside
Joy is considered a “connector emotion”, which means that it increases similar feel-good emotions in the brain while also decreasing the bad ones. So, when you watch your favorite movie, revisit an old friendship, or kiss someone special for the first time, you are engaging in activities that counteract the presence of most negative emotions, making you enjoy those activities a whole lot more. And, depending on what activities you decide to partake in, your joy may feel a little different!
- Dopamine is responsible for the happiness that comes from fulfilling your physical needs; it provides us with energy and motivates us to complete tasks we wouldn’t normally want to do.
- Serotonin, the chemical often associated with sleep and digestion, is released when you feel at ease. The joy of feeling safe and secure relaxes the body and happily numbs the brain.
- Oxytocin is often called the intimacy or “bonding” hormone, and rightfully so: it’s what makes it so fun to cuddle, share secrets, pet dogs, and hold hands. It’s also incredibly helpful for reducing anxiety and blocking physical pain.
- Lastly, endorphins are what give us that energizing kind of happiness that gets our blood pumping and our legs moving. It’s why our bodies can feel so pumped after engaging in a sweat-breaking workout.
Your brain isn’t the only thing that gets a pick-me-up from a good dose of “feel good” chemicals– the rest of your body benefits from it, too! Happiness helps your body stave off harmful health conditions like ulcers, heart disease, and insomnia, and your digestion runs a lot smoother when your stomach isn’t tied up in knots. A clear, happy head leads to clear, happy innards, and you may find that your moods will be more positive and more consistent!
On the Outside
There is more to “looking happy” than having a smile on your face (though that’s usually a good indicator). People who report being “very happy” tend to surround themselves with solid social structures– good family and work dynamics, fulfilling romantic connections, and lasting friendships. And joyful people are more likely to make better first impressions and talk passionately about their interests– which (usually) leads to more engaging social interactions!
There is also some truth in having a “pep in your step” — people who identify as being happy typically carry themselves in a more confident or upbeat fashion that many find appealing. They are also more likely to take better physical care of themselves by exercising, getting proper nutrition, and investing in good personal hygiene– and boy are we grateful for that last one.
A few activities that are said to promote happiness include dancing, laughing, physical activity (at the gym or in the bedroom, your call), meditation, crying, petting soft things, trying new hobbies, vacationing, engaging in altruism, listening to music, and participating in social activities.
Our world today has given us a lot of things to stress out about, and an occasional scare or worry-session is completely normal. Living in constant stress, however, is another matter entirely. Disorders related to anxiety afflict over 18% of the American population, and they often accompany other physical ailments. So what kind of ramifications do long-term periods of stress and anxiety have on your body?
On the Inside
Believe it or not, stress does have a useful biological function. Certain parts of our brain, like the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (try saying that three times fast), work to keep us alert in potentially dangerous situations. It’s when that alertness gets out of hand that we see harmful symptoms in the body. Prolonged stress has been linked to imbalanced levels of hormones like cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and dopamine– yes, the same “happy chemical from the last section. These imbalances usually lead to afflictions like depression, weight gain, autoimmune diseases, ulcers, and heart complications if left untreated.
Anxiety has terrible day-to-day side effects as well. Those who are under a consistent amount of stress are more likely to encounter thinking and memory problems, as well as experience perpetual abdominal discomfort. We’re more susceptible to developing colds, headaches, achy or twitchy muscles, and dampened sex drives, so there are few parts of our bodies that remain unaffected by periods of prolonged stress.
On the Outside
Anxious individuals are more likely to develop unhealthy nutritional patterns that may result in undesirable cosmetic changes. Not drinking enough water or getting enough sleep can cause skin ailments like dark under-eye circles, acne, and eczema. We are also more likely to lose hair and have abnormal weight fluctuations during periods of stress, and we are less likely to pay attention to our appearance or personal hygiene.
Our bodies suffer from painful and disruptive symptoms when we allow ourselves to come under too much stress. Some activities recommended for those with excessive anxiety include exercising, popping bubble wrap (yeah, seriously), getting a massage, socializing, meditating, petting a soft animal, knitting (or similarly thrilling activities), stretching, and cleaning your living space.
The English language uses the word “love” to describe several kinds of affection, including platonic, sexual, romantic, universal, and familial. But one thing seems to always ring true: whether it’s hugging your grandmother or getting that cute barista’s number, those happy-heart tingles are some of the best parts of being alive. So let’s take a closer look at what is going on in your body when you get those warm, fuzzy feelings.
On the Inside
Love is a mysterious force that even science can’t fully explain, but we can observe and analyze how our insides physically respond to those mushy-gushy feelings. And interestingly enough, depending on the kind of “love” you’re feeling, your body will perform very differently:
- The platonic (non-romantic) pleasure of someone’s company often involves even, steady levels of oxytocin and dopamine– meaning you’re more likely to feel relaxed and trusted (and avoid those embarrassing attraction-induced side-effects). Emotional and social bonding boost the spirit and evoke comfort in a close group of friends.
- Intense sexual attraction often results from variations in our testosterone and estrogen levels– and just to set the record straight, men and women do have both. Lust is also medically associated with certain mind-clearing endorphins because… well, good sex is like good exercise. Physical fitness, ovulation cycles, and emotional stability play large roles in erotic love.
- As Harvard Professor Jacqueline Olds puts it, “When we are engaged in romantic love, the neural machinery responsible for making critical assessments of other people… shuts down”– that’s right folks, love really is blind. Romantic love consists of a steady interaction between all of the feel-good “happy” hormones that foster joy, comfort, intimacy, and trust, sometimes in spite of those underlying red flags.
- Universal love is that general philanthropic care we have for others– human or otherwise. It’s why, depending on your capacity for empathy, your brain will release oxytocin when you see troops reuniting with their families or koalas being rescued from forest fires.
- Lastly, familial love is often associated with oxytocin and vasopressin (a hormone linked to maternal expressions of comfort). These chemicals tend to foster emotional attachment and social dependency– AKA the relationship between a parent and their child. It may explain why there is still underlying care among family members, even when their personal connections are rocky.
On the Outside
Oftentimes, the social expressions of ease and trust that accompany intimacy on a familial, platonic, and even lightly romantic level are rather similar. We value proximity with those we love, whether that be through physical location/contact or emotional understanding. Love in all of its forms prompts us to desire consistent interaction with the objects of our affection, and we are far more likely to engage in generous or self-sacrificing behavior when we are invested in their wellbeing.
The more iconic “cosmetic” symptoms of affection are those that are associated with romantic or sexual love– and yes, science can explain most of those. Is the heat rising to your cheeks? That’s from the rush of adrenaline you get after seeing someone special. The sweatiness of your palms? Those are your eccrine glands trying to cool your body down once your blood gets pumping. The pounding in your chest? That’s your heart making sure it has enough oxygen after someone’s taken your breath away (okay maybe that one’s not exactly right, but it makes sense, doesn’t it?)
Love is one of the most multi-faceted and peculiar emotions we have: it can be the most wonderful adventure of your life, or it can be the gateway to intense stress, grief, and loneliness. Sometimes it’s both, sometimes it’s neither. But either way, gosh, it sure can be fun.
In a country with nearly 330 million people in it, more than fifty percent of Americans feel lonely on a regular basis. A staggering number of people feel disconnected or dissatisfied with their personal relationships for some reason or another, and if you think suffering from loneliness is limited to your emotional state, you might want to think again.
On the Inside
Various experiments have proven that neurological functions are severely inhibited by isolation, even in non-human test subjects. You are more likely to lose focus, experience problems with memory, and make poor decisions when experiencing intense loneliness. Not only that, but the brain has been seen to physically deteriorate when it undergoes prolonged absences of social and physical contact, eventually leading to serious conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia. (Mind you, that is not a result of the average “I miss my mom” kind of loneliness, but it does speak to the power of depriving yourself of interpersonal intimacy).
Cortisol makes a notable appearance in the brain-game of isolation, but unlike stress or depression, there aren’t many key chemical factors involved with loneliness. In fact, many studies approach their research with the mindset that loneliness is often a perceptive phenomenon, meaning that we often feel alone for reasons other than chemical imbalances in the brain. And those reasons are what causes the rise in stress and anxiety-related hormones that give us the heart-wrenching feelings of loneliness we try so desperately to avoid.
It’s not uncommon for feelings of isolation to be accompanied by other oppressive health conditions, namely depression and anxiety. Sleeping disorders, high blood pressure, and diabetes have also been known to result from the body’s reaction to intense loneliness, and mental cognition is one of the first things to be disrupted by a lack of fulfilling human contact.
On the Outside
Loneliness is one of our more dangerous negative moods because, well, you can’t always tell when someone is feeling lonely. It’s a near guarantee, though, that your closest friends and family members would be able to tell by the change in your behavior.
Loneliness often prompts feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt that impact our abilities to relate to others on a deeply personal level; this further robs us of the intimacy that we crave. Mental and emotional fatigue can also manifest as being physically closed-off, overtired, and emotionally unavailable. The side-effects of stress may impact your appearance– the eye-circles, the hair loss, the weight fluctuations– but it’s more likely that your loved ones will notice your personality shift a lot sooner than you’d think.
While it may seem easier to just conceal feelings of isolation, it is not in your best interest to suppress the need for physical or social intimacy. Loneliness is a self-perpetuating condition: the more you convince yourself you are alone, the more you will likely push people away and actually end up alone. Some ways you can alleviate that feeling of isolation may include increasing social interaction, investing more deeply in your relationships, reaching out to existing family, ending hurtful partnerships and friendships, getting a pet or a plant, dialoguing online about your interests, purposing to be honest, and valuing your own opinions.
Life sure knows how to tick us off, doesn’t it? Kids spill grape juice on your mother’s fine linen, someone rear-ends your car on an already rough morning, and you wait in line for HOURS to go on your favorite amusement park ride only to be told it’s broken by the time you get to the front. So how does that fist-clenching anger manifest in our bodies when we feel our blood start to boil?
On the Inside
When we experience things that hurt us (or could potentially hurt us), our bodies have a defense mechanism often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. The parts of your brain responsible for releasing hormones start pumping your brain with adrenaline and cortisol; this is meant to make you feel on edge and provoke action (fighting back or running away from the hurtful stimulus). Anger typically falls into the “fight” category, which explains why getting angry enough can make you feel so ready to start throwing punches.
You may have heard people say they weren’t “thinking clearly” after a heated argument, and that may be true. However, acute anger often has the reverse effect: our synapses fire more rapidly when we’re angry, which basically means our thoughts are more likely to be sharp and focused. Frustration, an emotional off-shoot of anger, is more likely to have that dulling effect on our thought processes that leads to those unbridled outbursts.
On the Outside
Being angry for a short period of time– less than two days or so– doesn’t normally cause long-term impacts on the body. In fact, accepting and releasing anger has a reputation for being one of the most relieving processes we encounter. It may not feel like it when we’re in it, though: anger causes your heart rate to increase and your blood pressure and respiration rate to rise (that’s what causes the red face and sweaty palms). You may notice a lack of interest in food, which may cause weight loss, and your skin may suffer from the excess pressure getting pumped to your face. Most of anger’s other internal symptoms involve an increase in muscle tension, which explains the achy muscles, jaw-clenching, and toe-curling.
Prolonged anger, however, can have very damaging side effects. Having a consistently elevated heart rate can result in dangerously high blood pressure: headaches, digestive issues, insomnia, increased anxiety, and– in severe cases– heart attacks or strokes often follow. Not keeping your anger in check can also provoke violence, placing you and others in physical danger.
Anger, like all “negative” emotions, does serve a purpose: it’s how our body deals with pain– and, on occasion, tries to avoid it. But if you’re seeing red and you want to calm down, some ways to reduce the intensity of your anger include taking deep and steady breaths, writing down how you feel, engaging in intense physical exercise, taking a nap, watching a comedy special, counting to ten (and then fifty, and then one hundred), squeezing something plushy, or talking to a trusted individual.
Sometimes feeling blue is just a part of life– you get rejected for a second date, you don’t earn that promotion you were working towards, your childhood pet passes away– but how do our bodies process that melancholy, and when does grief become counterproductive?
On the Inside
An important thing to note here is that sadness is not necessarily the opposite of happiness– in fact, they’re often viewed as two sides of the same coin. “Bittersweetness” is one of the most common emotional states we experience, resulting from our brains’ memory center (hippocampus) conflating memories that have both negative and positive connotations. And many have found that expressions of sadness tend to bring them relief.
Pure sadness, however, works a little differently. It is often attributed to hyperactivity in the amygdala– your brain’s fear/discomfort manager, among other things– and a notable lack of dopamine, oxytocin, and/or norepinephrine. In more severe or lengthy episodes of sadness (namely grief and depression), our brains are known to overproduce monoamine oxidase A, an enzyme that inhibits the production of those feel-good hormones. This may explain why depression seems to be a self-perpetuating condition: the deeper you fall into despair, the less likely you are to achieve adequate hormonal levels if you don’t receive treatment.
Prolonged or deep-cutting sadness often impairs memory, speech, digestion, joint usage, and cognition. Your immune system is also more susceptible to cold and flu-like symptoms, and you have less energy to engage in your surroundings. And this is where the external symptoms begin to reveal themselves…
On the Outside
The physical ailments brought on by periods of sadness can vary depending on the severity. Acute but short-lived periods of sadness often provoke us to cry, scream, or move around (rage workouts can actually be extremely helpful, by the way). Other times we feel the need to lie down or be alone; binge-eating (or avoiding food altogether) are also common reactions. However, when the sadness is more drawn out, we tend to have more troubling outward reactions.
Fatigue is a major symptom of grief and depression, often leading to episodes of over-sleeping or restlessness depending on the individual. Relationships often suffer from this lack of energy because it can be extremely difficult for those who are suffering to interact with people in social settings. Sadness is known to inhibit day-to-day enjoyment while depression and grief often are characterized by complete disinterest or even complete dismissal of previously-enjoyed hobbies. And unfortunately, both take a physical toll on the body through weight fluctuations, sunken eyes, bad posture, aching joints, and abdominal pain.
Sadness is not necessarily something to be avoided; the release we can feel from it comes from a very normal and healthy place. If, however, you feel that you’re in a slump, some activities that may help combat the effects of sadness include interacting with animals, eating your favorite food, traveling somewhere new, taking a day off of work, confiding in close friends and family members, engaging in relaxing or meaningful hobbies, and– funnily enough– crying. (Crying is a natural human thing– allow yourself to do it!)
So, what are you meant to take from all of this sciencey mumbo-jumbo about hormones and neurotransmitters? Well, the best-case scenario is that you’ll feel hope.
Hope is possibly one of the hardest emotions to explain– both scientifically and emotionally– because hope isn’t necessarily one particular feeling. It’s a wonderful concoction of emotions that we can feel before, after, or even during periods of negativity. And weirdly enough, we can’t really “trick” our brains into feeling it– but we always seem to know it when we do. Hope comes from the knowledge that we have some control over what happens to us, and for those of us who find ourselves in times of confusion or distress, sometimes the most hopeful thing to hear is “this is normal”. And if anything, that is what this article is meant to do.
Don’t be mistaken: this isn’t meant to substitute for professional attention under the guise of “self-help”. The intent here is to educate you about your body in a way that empowers you to make healthy decisions. Being a thinking, and feeling human being is hard sometimes, but it’s also what makes us human.
So, let’s ask you again, a little different this time: how are you feeling today, and what are you going to do about it?