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Can unhappiness make people sick?


Svetla BankovaYour Thyroid and Emotional Health

by Svetla Bankova

(P.S. For the purposes of this writing, I would define unhappiness in a few different ways, including, but not limited to: strong dislike of your job, marriage or relationship, constantly worrying about money, living in resentment, lack of enjoyable hobbies, anxious and “wandering” mind, loneliness, tolerating chronic stress, low self-esteem and last but not least, disapproval and dissatisfaction of your own self).

I’ve always believed in the hypothesis that the mind and body are connected and most of our diseases are psychosomatic, meaning that there is a relation between the mental/emotional states and the physical symptoms. I have a good reason to believe this because for most of my life I’ve worked as a body psychotherapist and studied people’s physical and mental diseases for a living. I have studied the applied extensively the works of Wilhelm Reich and Alexander Lowen, as well as some other psychosomaticists,  and have found good support of their findings on a very practical level.

I know for sure that unhappy people do get sick with physical disorders more often than happy people do and that specifically pertains to autoimmune disorders. I know for sure that the thyroid and emotional health are closely connected. When the emotional state of my clients improved, so did their thyroid disorder.

Scientifically speaking, there are few scientific pieces of research on the connection between overall life satisfaction, happiness, and autoimmune disorders. This correlation is important to be acknowledged and investigated in sense of prevention and successful treatment of autoimmune disorders, and not only Graves’ Disease, but other autoimmune diseases like Diabetes type 1, Rheumatoid arthritis or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Vitiligo and in rare cases Lupus syndrome. In many cases, I’ve seen people suffering from more than one autoimmune disorder and some of you can definitely relate to this.

But why is that so, I thought?

I am not the first one asking myself this question. Many research studies in the past covered the connection between general well-being and other diseases, including but not limited to spinal cord injury, snoring, obesity, osteoporosis, Turner’s syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and migraine, however not enough studies have explored their connection with the autoimmune disorders. Here is some scientific support in that aspect as well:

1. According to Barak Y., (2006) from the Psychogeriatric Department, Abarbanel Mental Health Center in Israel, humans possess the ability to experience positive and negative emotions and these emotions have a tremendous effect on the physiological and immune processes. The study he conducted discusses the connection between affection, psychological well-being, and the immune system. 

The results of his study showed that pleasant emotions, regardless of the origin, increased the secretory immunoglobulin A (an important antibody agent) and decreased the salivary cortisol, which is responsible for the stress levels in individuals. Shall we go for the aromatherapy?

2. A similar study, involving pleasant stimuli, was conducted by Watanuki S, Kim YK. (2005) from the Department of Human Living Design, Kyushu University, Fukuoka, Japan. The results of their study revealed that the pleasant odor (used as pleasant stimuli in the study), increased the activity of the left frontal brain region, while beautiful emotional pictures increased the vasomotor activity of the sympathetic nervous system.

Enjoying and reading good books seemed to increase the secretory immunoglobulin A (s-IgA) and reduced the salivary cortisol (s-cortisol).  The study undoubtedly proves the correlation between different pleasant experiences and the immune system and accordingly, presumes that the well-being and happiness of the individual are connected with the performance of his immune system even on a pure chemical level. 

3. Stress and anxiety are other factors influencing the general feeling of happiness as recorded by General Psychological Well-Being Index (PGWBI), and therefore affecting the immune system. As proven in a study conducted my O’Leary, Ann (1990) regarding connection between stress, emotions and immune system, acute stressors in the form of single events may produce different reactions on the immune system, while chronic stress factors like unemployment, unhappy marriage and being under stress for a prolonged period of time definitely leads to suppression of the immune system, which may or may not recover with the time.

4. How happiness is good for people’s health and if this has anything to do with longevity is discussed in a research paper of 30 different studies regarding happiness and longevity by Veenhoven, R. (2008). He studied the effect of long-lasting unhappiness, triggering the flight or fight reaction, which has negative effects on health in a prolonged period of time and lowers the immune system response.  However, he found, happiness helps people not to get sick somehow, benefits preventing illness and has a great effect on longevity.

5. These findings followed a study, conducted in 1973 by Dr. Grossarth-Maticek, who used a special test to measure the level of pleasure and satisfaction of a thousand old residents of Heidelberg, Germany.  He conducted another test 21 years later and discovered that 300 people out of the tested reported high satisfaction of life and are thirty times more likely to survive and still feel well.  It appears that satisfaction of life can make you not only healthier but also can promote long life.

6. The influence of emotions on people with thyrotoxicosis, which is an autoimmune disease as well, were also discussed in a study by Mandelbrote B., MD, Wittkower  E.,  M.D, (1955). They studied, together with an endocrinologist, surgeon, a radioactive-iodine expert, two psychiatrists, and a psychologist, 25 cases with thyrotoxicosis. Among some of the other important results, it was found that the patients with thyrotoxicosis demonstrated increased anxiety and depression compared to the control group.

Speaking of all of the above, I would suggest that you try to raise your “happiness levels as soon as possible if you want some permanent cure of any disease for that matter. And don’t forget that the three grand essentials of happiness are: something you enjoy doing, something to love unconditionally, and something to hope for.

More tools to be happy:

101 Self-Loving Acts

101 Ways to Deal with Stress


Barak Y., The immune system and happiness. Autoimmun Rev. 2006 Oct;5(8):523-7.

Blakeslee, T. R., & Grossarth-Maticek, R. (2000). Feelings of pleasure and well-being as  predictors of health status 21 years later. http://www.attitudefactor.com

Mandelbrote B., MD, Wittkower  E.,  M.D, Emotional Factors in Graves’ Disease. Psychosomatic Medicine 17:109-123 (1955)

O’Leary, A. (1990). Stress, emotion, and human immune function. Psychological Bulletin, 108(3), 363-382. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.108.3.363

Olivier Chassany MD PhD, Elof Dimenäs PhD, Astra Zeneca, Dominique Dubois MD FFPM, Albert Wu MD PhD MPH, The Psychological General Well-Being Index (PGWBI) User Manual, MAPI Research Institute 2004

Veenhoven, R. (2008). Healthy happiness: Effects of happiness on physical health and the consequences for preventive health care. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(3), 449-469. doi:10.1007/s10902-006-9042-1

 Watanuki S, Kim YK., Physiological responses induced by pleasant stimuli. J Physiol Anthropol Appl Human Sci. 2005 Jan;24(1):135-8.