Remember the last time you went for a CT scan, an MRI, or an x-ray?
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We're guessing your doctor showed you the results and pointed out phlegm-laden lungs, plaque-heavy arteries, or a freshly broken bone. No? Okay, well, here's what your doc definitely didn't say: "Look 2 inches to the left of your esophagus. See that red, fist-shaped spot? That's your anger. It's dangerously enlarged. So tell me: Who pissed you off today?"
While your emotions may be invisible to the world's most advanced medical technology, they still impact your health just as much as your flesh-and-blood organs do. "Emotions are physiological," says Karen Lawson, M.D., an assistant professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota. "The idea that our bodies are separate from our feelings is a complete misconception."
Consider this article to be the kind of anatomy class your doctor never had in medical school. You'll learn the connection between anger and back pain, loneliness and high blood pressure, anxiety and dementia--and how to snuff out the fuse on even your most explosive emotions.
YOUR PROBLEM: ANGER
You + hot head = bad back. When people blow up, their back pain intensifies, a new study in the journal Pain found. Anger is thought to activate neural pathways that transfer mental tension to the muscles surrounding your spine, says study author Stephen Bruehl, Ph.D. A flaring temper may also be linked to blunted production of endorphins, which help quell pain.
Your solution: Take a step back
First, recognize your rage: Is your reaction physical? Do you spew a few choice words? Whatever your MO, use it as a cue to step back and pretend you're a referee, says Harvard psychologist Jeff Brown, Psy.D. "Try to make the right call by observing the interaction objectively." This self-distancing can reduce angry thoughts and aggression, an Ohio State study found.
YOUR PROBLEM: LONELINESS
You may have 2,000 Facebook friends, but if you don't feel connected, you'll know it in your heart. (Hence Why You Shouldn't Have More Than 354 Facebook Friends.) In a recent University of Chicago study, lonely people saw their blood pressure rise faster over 4 years than socially satisfied people did. What makes that so scary: The isolated folks' increase in BP was significant enough to raise their risk of a heart attack.
Your solution: Lend a hand
Men derive great satisfaction from group bonds--and that's why your 20s can be tough. You've lost the built-in social circle of your college years but still crave that fraternal feeling, says Louise Hawkley, Ph.D., a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. Her advice: Volunteer. As you work with like-minded people, friendships naturally unfold, she says.
YOUR PROBLEM: DEPRESSION
Feeling blue may be Code Red for cancer. In a Johns Hopkins study, people who'd experienced a bout of depression had a 69 percent greater risk of cancer than their sunnier counterparts. Over time, depression may interrupt the stress hormones involved in cell growth and cell cycle regulation, potentially leading to cancer, says study author Alden Gross, Ph.D.
Your solution: Keep it real
Overconfident people have an elevated risk of depression, a University of Pennsylvania study reveals. The reason: Self-inflation may set you up for disappointment and blind you to ways you can improve. Accept failure as a possibility--but one you can influence. Once you acknowledge your weaknesses, you can then find ways around them, say British researchers.
YOUR PROBLEM: PESSIMISM
Forecasting the worst could stir up a brain storm. Pessimists have a higher risk of stroke than more positive people do, a Finnish study found. Perpetual negativity may damage your blood vessels and disrupt the part of your nervous system that controls your heart rate, making you more likely to have a stroke, according to study author Hermann Nabi, Ph.D.
Your solution: Wear rose-colored glasses
You may not be an eternal optimist, but you're probably not a natural naysayer either. You just need to build your optimism muscles. Each week, pick one part of your life--career, dating--and envision the next decade if all goes well. This exercise can improve your whole-life outlook, say scientists from the University of California at Riverside.
YOUR PROBLEM: ANXIETY
When the stakes are high, anxiety primes you for action. But if you worry constantly, you may lose your mind: A British study found that anxiety can raise your risk of dementia. That's because chronic mental tension spikes your levels of glucocorticoids--and an excess of these hormones may wipe out brain cells and shrivel your memory center, the scientists say.
Your solution: Train your brain
Fill this prescription at the gym: Do at least half an hour of moderate-intensity cardio three times a week. Exercise can have a soothing effect similar to that of antianxiety meds, a Southern Methodist University study review concluded. Plus, physical activity boosts delivery of the oxygen your brain needs to consolidate and create memories, says Brown.
YOUR PROBLEM: BURNOUT
Think you can handle a 60-hour workweek? Check your blood sugar. Men who feel stressed at work are 21 percent more likely to develop diabetes than those who are at ease, a Serbian study shows. Trying to keep your head above an office avalanche can disrupt your sleep and cause inflammation--potential risk factors for diabetes, say Israeli researchers.
Your solution: Grin and bear it
The surest remedy is to ditch your job and move to Fiji. If that's not an option, adopt the island attitude at your desk. Smiling when you're stressed can calm your heart rate, say scientists from the University of Kansas. Luckily, you don't have to grin like an idiot: Even a half smile--an expression similar to holding a pencil between your teeth--can ease stress, says Brown.
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