How Do Our Emotions Affect Illness?

by Angela (Oh She Glows) on September 30, 2009


This is Norman Cousins.

As an adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities for the School of Medicine at the University of California, Norman did research on the biochemistry of human emotions.

Norman believed that our emotions are the key to fighting illness in the body.

This notion is a hugely popular field known as psychoneuroimmunology (psychology + neurology + immunology) and was one of my favourite subject areas that I came across in my studies.

It was a topic near and dear to Norman’s heart because he battled three illnesses over the course of his life: Arthritis, Heart disease, and a heart attack.

According to Norman, laughter was the key to fighting his illnesses.

Norman’s Recovery Program

He created a recovery program that involved mega doses of Vitamin C, along with a readjustment of his emotions. He made sure to hold a positive attitude even when his illnesses made life very tough. He said that he had a lot of love, faith, hope, and laughter in his life.

He even found a cure for his debilitating pain:

  • Norman said that just 10 minutes of deep, belly laughter would dull his pain for at least two hours.

After 10 minutes of laughing, he found that he could fall asleep without any pain. He said, ‘When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.’

He stood by his belief that wanting to play a role in curing oneself is the essence of the motivated person.

He coined this belief as ‘hardiness’.

Hardiness is composed of 4 ingredients:

1) Positive Expectations

You expect successful outcomes for yourself and others.

2) Relaxation

You dissipate stress through appropriate methods

3) Positive Emotions

You maintain a sense of humour and joyfulness.

4) Active Role

You are a ‘doer’, not just being done unto. You believe that you are in control of your destiny and not ‘fate’.

Despite his debilitating illnesses, Norman lived a long life. At 75, Norman died of heart failure on November 30, 1990, in Los Angeles, California.

What is interesting about his story is that he survived years longer than his doctors predicted:

  • 10 years after his first heart attack,
  • 16 years after his collagen illness, and
  • 36 years after his doctors first diagnosed his heart disease.


Do you think that emotions are linked to illness as Norman claims? Is laughter really the best medicine?

I personally believe that emotions are closely tied to illness.

After learning about what stress does to the body (e.g., increased cortisol, shrinkage of hippocampus, reduction of new neurons, decreased memory, etc) in my neuropsychology course, I am a firm believer that what we think has serious implications for how well or how poorly our body will function.

I think we need to start seeing stress as more than just what it does to the outside of us. For example, stress causes me to breakout and sleep poorly. It also causes me to be moody and eat junk food. Sure, these things are annoying and disruptive, but I think it is important to recognize that stress is much more pervasive than what we see on the outside.

Stress affects every cell in our body.

One of my favourite books of all time is When The Body Says No by Dr. Gabor Maté.

Dr. Maté summarizes the latest scientific findings about the role that stress and individual emotional makeup play in an array of diseases.

One of my favourite quotes in the book is:

“When we have been prevented from learning how to say no, our bodies may end up saying it for us.”

Dr. Maté sees illness as the body’s cry for help. He says when emotions are repressed, this inhibition disarms the body’s defenses against illness. And, in some people, these defenses go awry, destroying the body rather than protecting it.

It is a fascinating book. If you are interested in this topic I would highly recommend it if you are looking for a highly eye-opening read that forces you to take a hard look your own daily emotions.


See you this afternoon for the top ways to beat STRESS! How timely! ;)

I will also be answering your questions: Have I signed up for another race?


‘It is part of the cure to wish to be cured.’ ~Norman Cousins

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

natalie September 30, 2009 at 8:35 am

I could not agree more. I totally think that your mood and stress levels affect your overall health. I have two grandmas both almost 80. One of the them is the most negative person I know. She is always complaining, always unhappy, never does anything, she is negative, negative, negative. She is also ALWAYS sick. ALWAYS. She has always caught the latest bug and seems to constantly complain about that too! :)

My other grandma is the exact same age. She is nothing but positive. She purposily lives on the 3rd floor of her complex to get exercise everday. She goes to the mall everyday and walks with her friends. She still goes on dates, does nice things for people, and all you ever hear come out of her mouth are positive things. I talked to her a few weeks ago and she told me she has not had a cold in over 20 years!! 20 YEARS!! I know her health is completely affected by her mood and her positive attitue!

Its great to be able to compare the two and know that I can be just like my “happy” grandma if I so choose! :)


Jen September 30, 2009 at 8:36 am

I really do think stress can cause illness. For example when a diabetic is stressed his or her blood sugars can increase without the sugar in their diet. I have experienced this personally….about 8 years ago I had gestational diabetes, my blood sugar would be pretty high if I was stressed for whatever reason. I was even on insulin on the time. As far as the laughter bit yes I belive it does “somewhat” can be a pain reliever. When I was fully in labour and believe me I was in pain as I had no drugs at the time, th doc came to check me. I was having a n intense contraction and as he sat down, he sat on his lunch. It was hilarios at the time. Yes the contraction still hurt but me laughing definitly took the edge right off of it.-at the time contractions were a minute a part for 6 hours…not fun, but its a good memory that I share with my son


Angela (Oh She Glows) September 30, 2009 at 8:49 am

haha that story is cute!


Paige @ Running Around Normal September 30, 2009 at 8:43 am

I whole heartedly agree!! In fact, I have a chronic illness/disease, and one thing I do to make sure I stay healthy is to stay calm and cool. As soon as I get super stressed, (like extremly stressed) I get heart burn, and I know I’m going to get sick! It’s like clock work.


Krista September 30, 2009 at 8:45 am

I experienced this during my senior year of college; i came down with a case of strep throat that took my FOREVER to get over. i think the stress that i had been putting on my body definitely contributed and even exacerbated the problem. because i did not allow my body to rest it decided that it would going to MAKE me rest.

thanks for the information! its amazing what treating our bodies with respect can do in terms of overall health and wellness!


Lauren September 30, 2009 at 8:45 am

I absolutely love psychoneuroimmunology! It is one of my favourite areas in science! I have totallllly experienced the impact stress can have on ones’ body and it is not cool. I try hard each and every day to challenge my thinking and decrease my constant stress. Thanks for your always thought provoking posts! I never need to go see a psychotherapist- I can just come read Oh She Glows everyday!


CJ (Project55) September 30, 2009 at 8:49 am

I was just coming over here to ask what your running schedule is going to look like now that your training is over. I’m feeling slightly lost since Sunday and wondering if I should sign up for a race just to have a set schedule again…but guess you’ll answer that later!

– CJ


Angela (Oh She Glows) September 30, 2009 at 8:50 am

I know eh? Its so weird being done the half! I will be doing a post on it :)


VeggieGirl September 30, 2009 at 8:56 am

VERY interesting!! I definitely think that laughter is great medicine – works for me :-D

Can’t wait to find out more about your future race plans!


Jessica @ How Sweet It Is September 30, 2009 at 9:21 am

We all should be belly laughing an awful lot more. :)


insideiamdancing September 30, 2009 at 9:36 am

I think that emotions affect our mental health a LOT- laughter really does help, on so many levels. Have you seen the movie, “Patch Adams”?


Angela (Oh She Glows) September 30, 2009 at 11:29 am

yes I love that movie!!!! Must watch it again


kay (eating machine) September 30, 2009 at 9:39 am

as someone who has blood sugar issues (we’re talking, hypoglycemic to the point of passing out style) i can say emotions for SURE affect our physical health. Freshman year of college when I had a crappy (and crazy) boyfriend where I was miserable and stressed and crying all the time? Oh you better believe my blood sugar was also out of whack. Now it has days where it gets funky but overall i’m so so much better-and the biggest change is that i’m happier! :-)


Courtney September 30, 2009 at 10:26 am

I completely agree that the mental affects the physical in a major way. And of course, the physical can help the mental too as far as exercising to relieve stress and anxiety. I’m a much calmer, happier, more balanced emotionally with all the exercise I do. I know my hubby is glad of it!!!!! :>
Adventures in Tri-ing


Jess September 30, 2009 at 10:29 am

All of this is SO true! Right now, I’m going through a LOT of life changes … OK, one big one, but it seems to be all-encompasing. I try to make sure I keep positive things around me – like the operation beautiful site and I try to laugh when I can. I’ve noticed that at work I can seem to relieve a little bit of stress by taking a moment to check out the icanhazcheezeburger site with LOL cats – ALWAYS makes me laugh and I always feel better. The best part is KNOWING ways to turn things around to be positive. I won’t say it’s easy – it’s not – but at least I realize what I’m doing to myself and can correct it, or at least just acknowledge it, have a mini-pity party and then move on :)

Thank you for your posts – If you were closer, I’d want to give you a BIG HUG :)


Nikki T September 30, 2009 at 10:38 am

I couldn’t agree more with Norman!
I see this first hand every so often with my Husband…he over works himself, tires his body and mind and becomes stressed over things that aren’t getting done at home because he’s at work…then, unfortunately, he gets sick!
Thankfully it doesn’t happen too often, but ending the cycle completely would be much healthier for sure.
I’m totally going to check out Dr. Mate’s book!


Janna (Just Flourishing) September 30, 2009 at 10:55 am

Absolutely I believe our emotions are linked to illness.

I know for me that when I get stressed or upset I can actually make myself sick.

On the other hand, positive thinking can do wonders as can laughter. As with Norman Cousins.

The power of the mind over the body is fascinating.


Shannon (The Daily Balance) September 30, 2009 at 11:27 am

great post — I completely agree in mind over matter ;)


Jolene ( September 30, 2009 at 11:58 am

I love these series of posts – very educational and informative!


ReinventingSandyB September 30, 2009 at 12:08 pm

Another great one – a topic everyone can relate to (I know I can!) Did you also know that cortisol can contribute to weight gain? Yep. And then unwanted weight gain = more stress = more unhappiness = more stress… it goes on and on. HAPPINESS is the best exercise, all the way.

Oh ya.. just received a press release (although you might already know..) AMAZING GRASS HAS LANDED IN CANADA!


Michelle September 30, 2009 at 12:53 pm

You don’t know what perfect timing that post is for me. I’ve basically been bedridden for almost a week now with the most debilitating flu I’ve ever had. I know it’s just a flu, but my body hurts so much that I pretty much just want to die. Generally, I’m a positive person, but I was letting this illness take me over.
I’m going to work on some of this positive thinking and start getting better! Thank you!


Leah @ Simply Fabulous September 30, 2009 at 2:54 pm

I’ve got “when the body says no” and I could not love it more! It’s a great book.


Kasey (Fit For Wellness) September 30, 2009 at 6:17 pm

I just found your blog and love it!!! This was a great post and great discussion… I work in a hospital and see daily how a patient’s positivity or negativity influences their medical outcomes.


Allison September 30, 2009 at 6:23 pm

That’s absolutely fascinating research! I’ve always believed that attitude plays a big part in how your immune system functions, but I’ve never seen actual research on the effects.

It works the other (negative) way too: When I was little, I woke up feeling kind of icky and tried to get my parents to keep me home from school. But I didn’t have a fever or severe enough symptoms, so my dad took me to school. As he dropped me off, he gave me a speech about mind over matter, and I should use my brain to tell my body to be healthy. Well. I was an 8-year-old who didn’t want to go to school, so I sat there for about 3 hours telling my body to get sick! Hah. It worked though; when I asked to go see the nurse, they called my parents and my dad came back to pick me up.

On a slightly related note, I’d love to read your thoughts and research about exercising and illness–when to keep working out, when to stop, and (most importantly, I think) how and when to start again after you’ve been sick. I’ve learned the hard way to wait at least 2-3 extra days after I feel normal before jumping back to hard workouts or I’m likely to relapse.


maria September 30, 2009 at 9:22 pm

I would totally agree that emotions have some type of link to illness. I’ve noticed that unhappy people are sick and have more health concerns than those who are genuinely happy.


Marika October 1, 2009 at 6:26 am

I absolutely believe in this idea! And that’s so interesting about laughter offering some pain relief. I know a good laugh can immediately lift my mood, but I don’t think I’ve ever personally experienced a reduction in pain from laughing.


carly October 28, 2009 at 4:28 pm

what is oh illness??? my teachers borther in-law has it idk what it means im just in 5 grade and im 11 gosh what dose it mean ? plz write back

ps. PLZ TELL ME !!!!!!!!!!:0


Kate September 9, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Hi Angela, so I decided I was going to read through ALL your entries! (crazy, I know) But this one kind of hit home for me with a situation in my life and I thought you would love to hear it. My cousin Haley has Stage (?) cancer. Haley is 20 years old, just like me, and has had a mental disability her whole life. 3 years ago she was diagnosed with cancer. After a year of fighting tumors and chemo she was cancer free for two years! And now its back. She’s had one lung taken out plus numerous trips to the hospital this year. Heres the kicker: She’s FINE. Yes, she has cancer. But I’m tellin ya, she bounces back from everything (chemo, LUNG-sectomy!) FAST, like faster than anything I could’ve imagined. I was never more surprised when I heard she was TALKING after only a day of having her lung taken out. She went HOME after a whole week. Yes she has cancer, but she has the same energy she’s always had. And I’ve figured out why. With her mental disability, she knows nothing of what cancer can do. She doesn’t know about death or sadness, even at 20. Her whole life she knows nothing but happiness and, to be honest, she gets WHATEVER she wants ( her mom kind of babies her, especially since shes been sick) but thats my point. She gets whatever she wants, shes beyond happy. She’s healthy! I don’t think shes going anywhere anytime soon, shes just too healthy! Just a little story to go along with your always reminds me “mind over matter”!!!! :) p.s have you ever looked into “The Secret” theory? it’s all about mind over matter, seeing is believing kind of stuff. look it up! ;)


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