What is Psychoneuroimmunology?
Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI for short) studies how the mind, nervous, endocrine, and immune systems work together. It is believed that the mind and emotions play a role in how the neural chemicals and the immune system work. Put simply, PNI studies the relationship between the various organ systems and how they interplay on a physiological level. After over 40 years of research, this phenomenon was named psychoneuroimmunology in the 1970s.
In holistic medicine, PNI refers to how our emotions and mind can manifest disease processes. Our study is to understand how the disease develops on an immunological, nervous, and endocrine level under the framework of mind-body medicine. The communication systems of the nervous system and endocrine system inhibit immune function as a response to the mind and emotional signaling.
How do unaddressed emotions build up in our bodies and affect us physically and mentally?
As the famous book The Body Keeps the Score mentions, it is believed that unresolved trauma becomes trapped in the body. When we fail to process our emotions effectively, the unaddressed emotions are stored or “go” somewhere.
Eastern culture has long believed that emotions carry energy and that we inhibit or allow energy to flow in our bodies by suppressing or not expressing emotions. When we inhibit the processing of our emotions, have not learned how to process our emotions, or are currently experiencing trauma, we may resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as bottling or suppressing our emotions, which leads to compounded stress and makes it harder for our bodies to heal.
It's essential to address our unresolved emotions to avoid increasing our risk of chronic diseases or impaired cognitive functioning like problem-solving and rational decision-making.
For example, if we have an unresolved emotion from childhood, we'll often have deep-seated wounds attached to it. These wounds can manifest in different ways, such as feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or powerlessness. Not only will these emotions linger, but so will the thoughts that go along with them. Conscious or unconscious thoughts like "I'm not good enough," "I'm not worthy," and "I'm not important." It's believed that many chronic diseases can be linked to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). And those who have experienced four or more ACEs are at a greater risk for heart disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.
In western studies, emotions like grief, sadness, and pain are often referred to as "stress." These emotions that evoke a stress response can have a long-lasting negative impact on our health if we don't deal with them appropriately. For example, coronary artery disease can be caused by unresolved emotions we unconsciously hold in our chest.
Many digestive diseases, such as GERD, Constipation, IBS, IBD, Colitis, or Crohn's disease, may have some ties to psychoneuroimmunology.
Studies have shown that early life stress can impact gut microbiology and inhibit immune function, creating immunological and gut imbalances. This may also be due to unhealthy eating patterns for self-soothing or nerve overstimulation.
In the Eastern modalities, the GI system also represents personal power, self-worth, self-acceptance, and self-appreciation. If someone feels powerless, helpless, or hopeless in the early stages of life, that could contribute to these diseases. However, it's not to rule out the obvious - depression or anxiety symptoms - which can be attributed to unprocessed emotions.
Depression is often seen as anger turned inward and anxiety being a fear response. A fear response is attributed to hypervigilance in the brain and fear that "something bad is going to happen." That "something bad" may have already happened, but the mind is telling the body to stay alert and prepared. This can happen with deep betrayals, attachment wounds, and even generational traumas.
How can we effectively process conscious or unconscious emotional trauma?
First, we must develop self-awareness, which allows us to bring attention to and acknowledge any unresolved emotions stored in our bodies. I instruct patients to get a journal. Physically writing will enable you to access the subconscious mind — your memory center. As you process emotions, being honest with yourself is important. I encourage patients to document what they think and feel throughout the day. For instance, write it down if a coworker evokes rage within you. Feel let down by a friend, or are the kids getting on your nerves? Write it down.
The key is to develop a healthy relationship with yourself and your emotions. However, this is only possible when we can have compassion for and get curious about ALL of our emotions. We often deny that it even happened when we have been through a traumatic experience. We may rationalize and justify, making it difficult to accept. The process of journaling allows us to face life without conditions.
The second recommendation for effectively processing unresolved emotions is breathwork.
Vagal nerve breathwork exercises are incredibly effective in discovering and releasing stored and trapped trauma in the body while allowing the nervous system to relax and restore balance.
The nervous system goes through quite a bit when we have a trauma or negative experience, so it often needs a reset. Breathing exercises can reset the nervous system and allow for greater mental and emotional ease.
If a person is still in denial, it can be challenging to move them out of it, so I recommend EFT (emotional freedom technique) for those who are emotionally shut down. This technique uses the eastern meridian system. You tap on the endpoints and then use a setup statement such as "Even though I feel ______, I deeply love and accept myself."
Or if you're feeling shut down, you might say, "Even though I am shut down emotionally, I deeply love and accept myself."
Like acupressure for emotional healing, this modality "frees up" locked emotion in the bioenergetic system.
Validating your emotions for the first time can be liberating and reframing them to a high frequency can help move energy from low powerless energy to higher powerful energy. It is very cathartic and freeing, with many people being surprised at the results.
I recommend many modalities, but these are simple, effective, and free modalities that people can use at home by themselves until they feel safe enough to seek out a practitioner.
To better understand the breathing and EFT exercises discussed, there are tons of free YouTube videos you can reference.
It often takes more strength to let go than to hold on. If you're struggling with unhealthy emotions, it's important to find healthy ways to deal with them. Talk to someone you trust, go for a walk, or write in a journal. The most important thing is to be kind to yourself and allow yourself to heal.
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Wierenga, K. L., Lehto, R. H., & Given, B. (2017). Emotion Regulation in Chronic Disease Populations: An Integrative Review. Research and theory for nursing practice, 31(3), 247–271.
Dinan, T. G., & Cryan, J. F. (2017). Microbes, Immunity, and Behavior: Psychoneuroimmunology Meets the Microbiome. Neuropsychopharmacology: official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 42(1), 178–192.
Fioranelli, M., Bottaccioli, A. G., Bottaccioli, F., Bianchi, M., Rovesti, M., & Roccia, M. G. (2018). Stress and Inflammation in Coronary Artery Disease: A Review Psychoneuroendocrineimmunology-Based. Frontiers in immunology, 9, 2031. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2018.02031