Are you sick all the time without your doctors finding why? Do you have low energy while all your blood tests, radiology and physical exams are normal?
There are numerous explanations for ill health, most of them physiological. But one frequently-overlooked factor is the failure to pursue cherished goals, to follow your proverbial “heart’s desire.” The emotional distress of this failure to act can cause physical symptoms in some people.
A good example is my own:
When I was 30 years old, my parents wanted me to get married and continue working at my private medical practice in Fresnes, a suburb of Paris, France. My own dream was to travel and work all over the world. When my boyfriend who was an accountant, proposed while looking for a new job abroad, I was ecstatic. We started dreaming together about what our life would be in a different country and the house we would rent.
We got married and my new husband moved into my little apartment with me and soon after, accepted a new job in…. Paris, France! My dreams were shattered. It didn’t help that soon afterwards, my husband tried to fix the radiator and in doing so, flooded my apartment.
In one week, I went from being a happy single woman with lots of dreams, spending delightful romantic weekends in my boyfriend’s little studio and spending the rest of the week in my own dry spacious studio to being a miserable married woman in a soaked, over-furnished, over-crowed studio with shuttered dreams.
Could I stay in my little apartment, continue working in Fresnes and enjoy my new life as a married woman? The answer was yes, of course. I just needed to be patient for a few years (my husband wanted to stay at his new “ideal” job a few years for his career), which is what my parents told me.
I decided to listen to my parents, be a good wife, supportive of my husband, cook and bake for him, wash his clothes, iron his shirts, and continue working in my private practice in the suburb of Paris. But within a few weeks, I became very tired during the days and had nightmares every night. Three weeks after the wedding a high fever started that lasted a whole month. No physician could find the origin of my fever. Was it a true fever? We tried several new thermometers. All thermometers indicated 101 degrees Fahrenheit fever, day in and day out. I was exhausted but my blood tests and X-Rays were all normal.
What was going on with me?
The reality was that I had been telling myself that I should and could be the loving wife my husband deserved in Paris when my dreams were to travel and have a life full of adventure abroad.
The truth is that my body couldn’t and wouldn’t function well anymore and felt so sick that I had to go back to my parents’ house. Soon afterwards, my husband and I got a divorce.
I continued working in my private medical practice in the suburb of Paris for a few months, but I was still extremely tired, depressed and getting sick on and off. I decided to sell my private practice, sell my apartment and volunteer with Doctors Without Borders. I was sent on missions to Africa and Asia for the next 5 years and my health and mood rapidly improved. I felt no more depression, fatigue, nor did I have recurrent infections. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I became happy, excited to be alive, and healthier than I had ever been before.
As a result of my personal experience, when I finally settled down in the US and opened my private medical practice in Los Angeles, I became extremely attentive to people with recurrent respiratory tract infections, people with low energy, people with muscle tension, aches and pains, people with anxiety and depression. Was there an emotional struggle behind those patients ‘symptoms?
In a few people, I in fact deemed this the case. For others, the emotional struggle and stress were not the cause of the physical symptoms, but they aggravated physical symptoms, especially if people were trying to repress their emotions.
The Role of Stress In Mental and Physical Health
Extensive research on the effects of mental state on health, described in articles on somatization (physical symptoms without any observable cause), and psychoneuroimmunology (that studies the relationship between immunity, the endocrine system and the central and peripheral nervous system) demonstrate that emotional imbalances and stress (which could be conscious or unconscious) affect our physical health on a continuum ranging from no observable medical causes to very obvious physical causes (such as frequent infections).
O’Connor and colleagues describe in the Annual Review of Psychology (2021) the different mechanisms through which stress can affect health directly through autonomic and neuroendocrine responses but also indirectly through changes in behaviors (like eating disorders, drugs and/or alcohol addiction).
Another study from Johannes Alfons Karl and colleagues published in the Journal of Happiness Studies (August 2022) shows that there is a negative association between stoic ideology (especially people who try not to feel and not to express their emotions) and well-being.
After 40 years of practicing medicine, I have seen disorders all across this continuum, where often the root, emotional cause of ailments was a failure to pursue cherished hopes and dreams. Here are 12 examples.
8 Subtle (or Not So Subtle) Clues
1. Frequent infections: You are getting viral or bacterial infections very often like colds, flu, ear infections, sore throats, bronchitis despite your blood tests being within normal. Studies show that chronic stress weakens the immune system via the increased secretion of cortisol.
2. Muscle spasms, aches and pains: You have aches and pains repetitively in your joints and muscles without having exerted yourself and without any other obvious explanation. The reason could be the increased secretion of adrenaline caused by stress. A study published in the Journal of Physiology shows that adrenaline increases contractions of human muscles. Again, those contractions might be unconscious and could also give joint pain as a result.
3. Low energy: You feel tired all the time while your physical exam, X-rays and blood tests are all normal. Of course, you could have a disease that hasn’t been diagnosed yet. But low energy could be a clue that you are experiencing stress; it takes a huge amount of energy to suppress who you really are.
4. Depression and anxiety: You feel depressed and anxious and are not excited about your life. Unconscious sadness and anger from not being able to pursue one’s goals or to be who you really want. This might lead to depression and anxiety.
5. Binge eating and/or drinking: You are eating too much too frequently, eating junk food and sweets, drinking too much alcohol, or using drugs. All of those make you feel better for a short time, while numbing you, but you might need more and more of those to keep feeling better longer.
6. You don’t listen to your gut feelings: Sometimes your gut feelings will tell you that you are doing something wrong by giving you stomach uneasiness and tension. On the other hand, if you think about what you really want to do, you will get a lot of butterflies in your belly, you will feel bubbles of excitement. Those gut feelings are worth listening to.
7. Problems at work and with your relationships: Perhaps you blame others for your problems. Conversely, you may rely too heavily on others, especially relying on others to feel loved and validated. In this scenario, a person may change jobs, relationships and even towns, thinking that external factors are the cause of their problems, only to discover that the problem is internal.
8. You feel empty or inauthentic: If you are lying to yourself and think you can handle ignoring your true desires, you might feel empty because key aspects of yourself are not accessible or are suppressed. In this case, you may spend too much time worrying what others think of you. You are being the person other people want you to be (your parents, your partner, your boss) but you forget to be the person you, yourself always wanted to be.
Ignoring your true desires can create conscious or unconscious stress which in turn could be the source of physical ailments.
Awareness of what is happening inside you is an important first step. In fact, it is sometimes enough in itself. If you want to proceed further, you need to weigh the pros and cons of staying in a known stressful situation and ignoring your true desires or changing to a different unknown situation aligned with your cherished dreams (which could also be stressful at the beginning but more fulfilling at the end).
The decision ultimately is yours.
As for me, I have put a lot of personal work into finding who I really am. As a result, I have made drastic changes in my life. As I go through different phases of my life, I reevaluate what my mind and body need on a regular basis. My early understanding of the degree to which the body can “rebel,” plus a lifetime of work as a physician, convince me that taking time to tune into one’s most cherished desires, even in the absence of any physical ailment, is always worthwhile.
Copyright 2022 @ Chris Gilbert, MD, PhD