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Can We Make Ourselves Sick With Worry?

stressThe early Greek metaphysicians as well as indigenous healers throughout history have known empirically that chronic emotional distress leads to chronic physiological stress, which eventuates in disease. Even in the days before physicians and indigenous healers could measure emotions and stress, it was obvious to all of them that there was a direct connection between emotional/mental state and state of health.

We now know that disease is the result of physiological stress. However, physiological stress can be triggered by physical trauma, infection with viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites, many prescription drugs, exposure to environmental or endogenously produced toxins, or temperature extremes. Other potential physiological stress factors include genetic predisposition to disease, epigenetic events, unhealthy behavior, and an endless number of idiopathic (unknown) pathophysiological processes. Often, disease is the result of an unfortunate confluence of more than one of these physiological stressors.

One thing all medical conditions have in common is that the healing process is influenced by our state of mind. State of mind is a constant variable that helps explain why exposure to any of the particular physiological stressors mentioned above does not necessarily always confer disease. It is important to know that any reduction of emotional distress can mollify the effects of most forms of physiological stress.

Our genetics, epigenetics, and other factors can determine the specifics of our future illnesses and the age at which we will be struck down. Those who have exceptional genetics, who get good nutrition, ample sleep, and regular exercise; and who minimize their exposure to environmental toxins will have greater health and longevity, but no one is immune from the deleterious effects of persistent emotional upheaval.

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When I was practicing psychotherapy with people living with chronic or life-threatening diseases, I began to wonder if it was possible that over a period of many years, their emotional distress had actually created pathogenic (disease-causing) levels of physiological stress, which could have contributed to their autoimmune diseases, cancer, and other debilitating medical conditions. This led to my review of the published literature from refereed journals and books by experts in the field, the results of which made it patently clear to me that chronic emotional distress is a very significant cause of disease. The good news is that there are many ways to train the mind to calm the body and reverse the damage.

Among the clients with whom I worked, some had done everything right in terms of nutrition, exercise, and sleep, but long years of emotional distress were too much for them, and most likely contributed to their debilitating medical conditions.

buddhaEmotional distress is often self-inflicted by the untrained mind, the result of being out of harmony with our inner, subjective experience of the moment. This happens when we do not allow ourselves to fully experience our thoughts, sensations, or emotions, or to recognize them as insubstantial mental constructs. In other words, even the negative thoughts don’t cause stress or illness as long as we are able to step back from them and observe them as if they were clouds floating across the sky. This is not easy, and requires considerable practice.

I recommend taking an eight-week course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), or getting trained in vipassana or Zen. However, in order to get a beneficial health benefit, extensive practice throughout the day is necessary. I trained at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts. For many years, despite meditating for forty minutes, twice a day, my level of stress resilience didn’t improve. The lesson I gradually learned is that mindfulness needs to be practiced all day long. The way I now practice throughout the day is to pay continual attention to my rate and depth of breathing, level of muscular tension carried in my upper body, quality of posture, and quality of thought processes and feelings.

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Can We Make Ourselves Sick With Worry?

Dr. Larry Berkelhammer

Dr. Berkelhammer is a retired mind-body medicine psychologist. He writes about mindfulness-based practices with a unique emphasis on optimization of wellbeing and health. Dr. Berkelhammer also lectures at San Francisco State University and UC San Francisco, and is currently teaching a class in Marin County through College of Marin. He is the author of the book "In Your Own Hands; New Hope for People with Chronic Medical Conditions".

See his extensive website:

In Your Own Hands: Mindfulness-Based Practices to Optimize Wellbeing - College of Marin Community Education

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APA Reference
Berkelhammer, D. (2015). Can We Make Ourselves Sick With Worry?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Jan 2015
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