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Thoughts and Feelings and Our Health


Image by Brian Hillegas

A reader asked me to write on the connection between our feelings and our illnesses and disorders. Here is what I have to say. I’ve actually written about it as part of a bigger subject – how our feelings affect other aspects of our experience and how the other dimensions of our experience affect our feelings. I hope what I’ve written is what they were after.

1. Theory
If you can imagine being inside a box and bouncing a ball around, you will be imagining the ball in a three dimensional space. That is: any movement the ball makes will be a change in relation to the length, breadth and height of the box. Any movement at all that the ball makes means a change in all these three dimensions. We may focus on one dimension – we may be interested in making the ball go higher or we may want to throw it further – but it moves in all three dimensions.

One of my favourite ways of thinking about our experience is as a five dimensional space. The five dimensions being the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and social. We may focus on one but any significant experience will involve all five of our dimensions. (This metaphor may not be perfect but it is useful for me.)

Some examples that I hope help to make the point. The (physical) noise in our environment can affect our (mental) concentration. Our (emotional) upsets can affect our (spiritual) sense of purpose (and vice versa). Our (mental) clarity can help us process our emotions.

2. A Story
I have told this story in another post but it is the most striking example I know of how our experience is affected by non-physical factors.

Two of my friends were trying to figure out how to do the tax return of one of them. The time to pay tax was near and time was short. Neither of them were experts in tax but there wasn’t the money to pay an accountant. The person paying the tax had a fairly unconventional business. Which all added up to quite a challenge.

They got together one afternoon and tried to sort it out. Hours later they were enormously frustrated – tired, annoyed, stuck, tired and stressed. They could not figure how to report the person’s earnings. They tried one thing and had worked on it for an hour – until it turned out not to be right.

Then they found the answer. It was fairly simple after all. Suddenly their energy lifted, they were able to do the work quickly, they were not as tired anymore. When they finished doing the tax they were less tired and exhausted than an hour or so earlier when they were stuck. Which is strange, because they had been awake for an hour longer and had been working fairly hard too.

I tell this story because it is such an ordinary occurrence. Things like this happen to us every day. We tend not to notice them – but they show that our experience is readily affected by our expectations, thoughts and feelings.

3. Stress
Perhaps the most common way we have of talking about the connections between the five dimensions of our experience is ‘stress’. We understand that any element of our experience can be stressful and it is usually understood that stress is a whole person experience.
It can be stressful to:
not have enough food or light, or too much noise (physical)
have an emotion that keeps coming up (emotional)
not know how to achieve a required goal (mental)
have a sense of empty meaninglessness (spiritual)
be in a relationship where you are not respected (social)
And we understand that each of these kinds of experiences affects all the dimensions of our experience. To be stressed affects us:
Physically (tight shoulders, indigestion . . .)
Emotionally (feeling pressured, up-tight . . .)
Mentally (obsessive, scatty . . .)
Spiritually (distracted, despairing . . . )
Socially (isolation, aggression . . .)

4. Healing
Healing can usually begin with any one of these dimensions. Sometimes it is only one dimension that needs to be addressed: a poor diet may simply need extra food (though eating a correct diet – for those to whom enough of good food is available – may be a very emotional issue and involve every dimension of our experience). Usually all of the dimension are involved to some extent.

An example. Say you are having a difficult time with a friend you value. Our attention is on the social dimension. You could address the situation:
Physically by: Making a representation of the friend or your relationship and see what you want to do with this representation. (Destroy it? Cherish it? Nourish it? Put it away somewhere safe for now?)
Emotionally by: Expressing your feelings as fully as you can about this situation.
Mentally by: Getting clear about what the issue is. Question the value of the relationship to you – is it worth the cost? See if there are patterns in the relationship and whether you are happy about them.
Spiritually by: Seeing if you and your friend share a common purpose. Do you wish to? Would it assist the relationship if it did?
Socially by: Getting assistance from someone else. You could organise for you to talk to someone else, or for you and your friend to. You could also seek the wisdom of others through books and other media.

I hope this goes someway to addressing the role that our thoughts and feelings play in creating our experience (whether distressing, delightful or whatever point in between).

I would very much like to hear your thoughts on this matter too. Have you had times when symptoms have cleared up due to a changed relationship or thought perhaps? If you think this is beyond fanciful and wrong-headed I would like to hear your experienc too. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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I'm Evan Hadkins. To find out how to live a more satisfying life you can download my manifesto on living authentically. It is a book of exercises to guide you to finding, nourishing and living from the core of who you are.

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{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Hi Evan,

    I agree with you that the five dimensions impact our experiences. This is why it’s so important for me to actively manage (for lack of better words) all the dimensions in my life; to frequently check in with myself and make sure I’m on the track I want to be. And if I want to improve, I look at which dimension will directly make that improvement happen; the other dimensions receive an indirect benefit which then makes my overall experience (improvement) even better.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Evan 2009/05/14, 7:14 am

    Hi Laurie. It sounds like you have a great approach that really works. Thanks for your comment.

  • Illuminated Magnifying Glass 2009/05/15, 11:01 am

    Cool blog, like what I read. Will be back to read more. Adding to RSS feeder. Bob

  • Albert | UrbanMonk.Net 2009/05/17, 4:18 pm

    A very comprehensive article, Evan! I think you’ve covered every base so I can only add my personal experience. When I was depressed many years ago I had huge mouth ulcers almost every other month, I looked 10 years older than I was, and my hair was falling out with every shower I took. A lot of other stuff I can’t remember too, but all the conventional medicine I tried didn’t work.

    Since I recovered from depression, I’ve never had an ulcer no matter how many times I cut the inside of my mouth (thru sport or whatever), and everything else is back to normal too.

  • Evan 2009/05/17, 7:19 pm

    Thanks Albert, that’s a great example.

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