Health Care

Relationships: Emotional health may affect physical health

There is an inextricable link between your emotional health and your physical health.

Don’t believe me? Google “broken heart syndrome.”

According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, BHS is “a temporary heart condition brought on by stressful situations, such as the death of a loved one. People with broken heart syndrome may have sudden chest pain or think they’re having a heart attack.” One part of the heart enlarges and doesn’t pump as well as usual. This is a physical manifestation of extreme emotional distress. It puts all those other observable physical responses to being dumped or losing a loved one into perspective -- the tears, lack of energy, inability to focus.

Local psychologist Albert Eaton, director of the Behavioral Science Family and Medicine Residency Program at Columbus Regional, said that physical manifestations of emotional responses are largely caused by our body’s natural stress response.

“When you perceive something as a threat -- and relationships that are not super healthy are often perceived as a threat -- you activate a part of your body that we usually associate with stress,” he said.

Conversely, if you’re in a healthy, positive and supportive relationship, your overall health -- mentally, emotionally and physically -- is better.

Just being in a relationship isn’t the deciding factor, said Eaton, it’s how you feel about being in a relationship or being single.

While being in an abusive or unhealthy relationship can be perceived as a threat, so can being single if the person feels lonely.

While unsupportive or unhealthy relationships raise your blood pressure and increase muscle tension, “quality social support, intimate relationships where you feel connected to other people, you feel supported and cared about by other people, minimizes the effects of stress,” said Eaton. “So it helps to release the chemicals in your body that help you relax, that help you feel safe, that help you feel happier. So it’s important to realize that everything in your emotional life has an interactive kind of correlation in the rest of your body. They’re not separate.”

But how do we build those healthy, supportive relationships?

Odell Vining, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist with Columbus Psychological Associates, said the most important thing for people to do is get to know each other before jumping into a commitment like marriage.

“Just take things slow. It’s not a race where I must get married by 30 or have a baby by 30. No, it’s life and just enjoy the people you’re with. Once you commit, 60 years is a long time to be together with a person you don’t care about,” said Vining. “So spend time with them, learn about them and take things slow. If it’s meant to be, it’s going to work out if it’s not, you’ll find out sooner rather than later because later is a lot harder.”

Vining said he sees a lot of couples who have had “whirlwind” courtships and marriages, treating marriage almost like dating. They come to him only to find that their core values don’t line up or they don’t really know much about their partner.

The best advice Vining can offer, and he said it’s something that most people know but don’t put into practice, is that communication is the most important element to a healthy and successful marriage.

“We talk all the time, every day, and somehow with our spouse or significant other we lose IQ points,” he said. “We can no longer speak to the person we love the most. And how’s that possible? But it happens.”

In addition to keeping open the lines of communication, Vining said a healthy marriage is about showing your love for one another and prioritizing your time together.

He pointed to social media and video games as a recent topic of contention for some of his clients, saying that their partner spends time when they could be together on the computer instead.

“There’s nothing wrong with (social media and computer games),” said Vining. “Like most things -- it’s like alcohol -- in moderation, it’s fine. But in excess, if your spouse is by themselves or doing whatever, and you’re on a screen spending hours in fantasy, and pretend that you’re building a farm or a house, or you’re on World of Warcraft is that really, when you look back on your life, how you want to say, ‘This is how I used the time with my spouse.’ Not that you should feel guilty about (playing games), but you have to realize it’s a trade-off.”

Couples who have common core values, who are committed to one another and who do everything they can to make each other happy are not the couples who find their way into Vining’s office.

“And if they did I would just sit there and go, ‘Wow, I can’t help you,’” he said.

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