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The Physiology of Emotion

Updated on November 6, 2015
denise.w.anderson profile image

Denise has struggled with mental illness most of her life. She also has family members with mental illness. She speaks from experience.

Emotions affect all major systems of the body. Circumstances are processed through the past experience files of the brain. Repeated experiences trigger automatic responses in the body. Those that are considered to be positive release pleasurable impulses that trigger relaxation and enjoyment. Negative experiences trigger fight or flight responses. Immediately, the systems of the body are on alert and remain so until the situation is resolved or passes peacefully.

The following diagrams explain how each system of the body is affected by negative emotions:

The Nervous System


The Nervous System

Brain activity increases, sending messages out to the entire body to be on alert.
Symptoms – headache, swelling feeling, lightheadedness, and dizziness.

Eye sensitivity.
Symptoms – blurred vision, sensitivity to light, distorted depth perception and clarity.

Increased nerve impulses to large muscles.
Symptoms – increased energy, twitching of muscles, nervous drumming of hands or feet, desire to move quickly, inability to relax, muscle pain and spasms.

We increase the health of our nervous system as we learn to identify our emotions and deal with them as they occur. When we feel angry, admitting our anger and finding positive ways to express it keep us from internalizing these feelings. We find ourselves having greater control over our voice inflection and temperament.

Recognizing unrealistic fears allows us to use positive self-talk to help bring them back into perspective, thereby alleviating anxiety that leads to excessive worry and its accompanying issues. The time we take to deal with our emotions will be time spent out of the doctor's office.

The Gland System

The Gland System

Thyroid and thymus glands secrete more hormones.
Symptoms – increased metabolism, increased hunger, digestive fluids, and faster heart rate.

Increased hormone secretion from the adrenal gland.
Symptoms – all body systems are in a state of alert.

Pancreas produces more insulin.
Symptoms – increased thirst, waste production, and elimination.

Male and female sex hormone production increase.
Symptoms – greater desire for sexual activity, more aggressive behavior, little sensitivity to partner or other dependents’ needs, greater drive to provide/protect/nurture, perhaps even to control other’s actions.

The body is very sensitive. Awareness of how our body functions and the symptoms we experience will help us to see how negative emotions are affecting us.

Our gland system is the hormonal system of the body. The hormones govern the digestion of food, our moods, and our ability to respond in emergency situations. Problems with the gland system lead to problems with all major systems of the body.

Recognizing and working through our emotions as they occur gives us an edge when we are dealing with the unexpected. Our senses are sharp and we are able to make quality decisions having to do with vital resources that make a difference in our own lives and that of our loved ones.

The Digestive System

The Digestive System

Mucous production in mouth and nasal passages.
Symptoms – runny nose, watery eyes, swollen passages, coughing, spitting, and difficulty hearing.

Swollen trachea opening and constriction of esophagus.
Symptoms – shortness of breath, coughing, choking, and even vomiting.

Increased activity in liver and spleen.
Symptoms – increased urination and movement of waste into the elimination channels, increased nutrients into the bloodstream and muscle tissue, rise in blood pressure, sweat glands produce.

Stomach acid production increase.
Symptoms – acid stomach, ulcers, acid reflux, heartburn, and indigestion.

Increase in material moved into the large and small intestine.
Symptoms – pain, gas, swelling in abdomen, constipation, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, polyp formation, blood in stools.

The digestive system is especially vulnerable to problems with fear, anxiety, and worry. We end up with such issues as ulcers, colitis, and other stress induced illnesses. Our ability to calm ourselves when we feel fear often depends upon our level of spirituality and connections with God. When we feel assured that we are being watched over, that our needs are known, and have confidence that all will work out for the best, our anxiety and fear can be assuaged.

The Musculo-Skeletal System

The Musculo-Skeletal System

Clenching of teeth.
Symptoms – pain in the jaw area, headaches, face muscle tension, chipped particles of teeth, and wearing down of the enamel.

Tightness at base of the skull.
Symptoms – headache, neck pain, cramping in the shoulders and neck, arm numbness and tingling.

Collar bone restriction.
Symptoms – tightness in chest and neck, shallow breathing, sunken chest, and chest pain.

Middle and lower back tension.
Symptoms – back pain, chest pain, heartburn, difficulty breathing, and inability to sit up straight in a chair.

Shoulder, elbow, and wrist tightness.
Symptoms – numbness/pain in lower arm, pain in fingers and joints, stiffness, clumsiness, and swelling.

Tension in hip and knee joints.
Symptoms – pain and stiffness, leg cramps, difficulty bending, pain or numbness in the ankles, feet, and toes.

Our musculo-skeletal system often receives the brunt of our negative emotions. We end up with back problems, pain in the joints, and spastic muscles. Learning how to relax is a vital skill to develop, and gives our body systems the opportunity to rejuvenate themselves.

Wholesome recreation is an important part of our emotional health. It allows us to work off some of the built up or pent up emotions we experience. This type of physical activity refreshes our minds, bodies, and spirits, and gives us enjoyable ways to interact with friends and family.

The body is like a barometer. When the pressure of negative emotions rises, the bodies functions change to accommodate it. As thoughts are changed, negative emotions give way to positive ones and the pressure falls.

The Cardiovascular System

The Cardiovascular System

Increased blood supply to the brain.
Symptoms – headache, dizziness, lightheadedness.

Swelling of major arteries in the neck area.
Symptoms – tension and pain in the base of the skull, neck, and shoulders, redness in the face and neck.

Heart swells with an increase of blood flow.
Symptoms – racing heart, sweating, and pain in the chest.

Increased oxygen supply to the lungs.
Symptoms – shallow, rapid breathing, pressure and pain in the lung area, light-headedness, dizziness, and possible fainting.

Swelling of major arteries.
Symptoms – numbness and tingling in the extremities and soreness at pressure points.

The cardiovascular system is probably the most susceptible to negative emotions, as is seen by the high incidence of stress-related heart issues, blood pressure problems, and artery buildup. What we eat is not the only thing that affects this delicate system. What we think and how we respond to emotions stimuli are also a big part of the problem.

Our physical health is integrally connected to our emotional health. One affects the other. When our physical health is poor, it will be reflected on our emotional health. We will find that we have difficulty with more negative emotions, and we cannot recognize or manage them. When our emotional health is poor, we make unwise decisions on how we take care of ourselves, thus undermining our physical health.

Work through your emotions today, both for your physical health and for your emotional health!

©2012 by Denise W. Anderson, with updates in 2015. All rights reserved. For more information on emotional health, see


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    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 4 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Yes, lemmyC, negative emotions can wreak havoc on our physical well being, as well as our social, mental, and spiritual health. Emotional health is the glue that holds life together. The daily habits and thought patterns that we use affect everything we do. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • lemmyC profile image

      Ben 4 years ago from UK

      Thanks for this informative and practical article. It reinforces the the negative impact negative emotions have on our systems leading to downward spiral if not managed.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 5 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      It has been my experience that once a person recognizes that emotion is affecting their physical well being, and makes the changes necessary to deal with those emotions, they will be restored to a greater degree of health than they have had in years. See my hubs on Stopping Negative Emotions, Looking for Thinking Patterns that Lead to Negative Emotions, and Listening for Positive Statements and Actions that Build Feelings of Self-Worth for assistance in the process.

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      barbara clemson 5 years ago

      my mother carries negative baggage from easy sixty or seventy years ago right until the present day. can these suggestions help.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 5 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks Eliza and MsDora. Changing our negative emotions to positive ones takes faith. It is a bit like the people in Moses time looking at the brazen serpent to be healed. They had to do something to change what was happening to them. We have to focus on the opposite of the negative emotion; for example, we stop fear with faith, anger with gratitude, and hate with love. Each negative emotion has an equal and opposite positive emotion that is just as powerful. As we focus on the thoughts that bring the positive emotion into our lives, we have the happiness and peace we desire.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 5 years ago from The Caribbean

      Denise, thanks for this detailed explanation of the effect of our emotions on our bodies. I wish there was a switch at our fingertips to turn off negative emotions before they do damage, but your article teaches that the switch is mental. Thanks for your well-presented facts.

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      Eliza Anderson 5 years ago

      This is really good information to know. I have struggled with negative emotions in the past. There is something I can do to overcome those negative emotions and replace them with positive emotions.