If you suffer from a chronic ailment for which no doctor has been able to find a cause or effective treatment, it's possible that hidden emotions may be to blame. Perhaps you have chronic back pain or frequent digestive upset. Or you may have had chest pains that doctors can't explain or skin eruptions that keep coming back despite treatment.

What's often overlooked: Sometimes a mysterious physical malady has a secret source-repressed emotions. These hidden feelings often have their roots deep in your personal past-for example, in events, situations and people who were important to you as far back as your childhood but are still haunting you.

What You Can’t Hide

How well your body functions depends, in part, on your emotional health. Unfortunately, many people spend years or even their entire lifetimes running from realities that seem too painful to face.

How we fool ourselves: You may have had selfish, neglectful parents, but it's easier to tell yourself that they were loving and generous...or you may have convinced yourself that the lonely adolescence that you experienced was not a problem because it made you stronger.

Research shows that this relentless cover-up of painful emotions exacts a physiological toll. All the energy you expend to keep "safe" from difficult memories leaves your body with little resilience to cope with the demands of daily life-your immune system may misfire, hormones may become imbalanced, your muscles may become chronically tense and your cardiovascular system may behave erratically.

What An Ailment Really Means

If you have a medical ill that is linked to buried feelings, the connection to your past trauma is rarely obvious.

Example: A 60-year-old man suffered from excruciating back pain that persisted despite physical therapy, chiropractic treatment and even surgery. With a psychotherapist's encouragement, he started exploring his past, which included things he didn't want to think about," such as physical and sexual abuse. But when he did think about them and remembered the terrible emotions of the time-he started to experience relief from his back pain. Although there was no direct evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship between the man's psychotherapy and reduced symptoms, there was no mistaking that his back pain improved when he finally accepted and came to terms with the psychic pain he had suffered.

The Questions To Ask Yourself

If you have an unexplained physical problem and wonder whether repressed emotions may play a role, ask yourself questions. If I were to change three things about my life, what would they be? Write them down.

Be sure to be specific. If you wish your marriage were better, what's missingWould you like more honest communication? More time together (or more time alone)? More sex? Then…

  • Sit quietly and tune in to the emotions your statements arouse. I can't talk to my spouse about my real needs and fears because I know she won't really listen.
  • Connect to the past. Spend time with your statements about today's dissatisfactions. Ask yourself, Why do I feel this way? What do this situation and these feelings remind me of from my past? What events, people and/or family relationships aroused the same emotions?

For example: Your older brother was the family star. You admired him and gladly lived in his shadow while your parents showered him with praise. If you had any other feelings about it-resentment and hurt that you counted for so little-you buried them.

Is it any wonder that you are now afraid to speak up in your marriage?

Important: This process typically involves thinking at length about things that you have tried not to think about at all. For example, your painful memories may be related to the death of a family member, humiliating events that occurred at your school or even some form of physical or sexual abuse that you experienced.

If your efforts to go through the process described above don't help your physical symptoms, become too emotionally painful or make you feel worse physically or emotionally—then see a therapist. You don't have to commit to years of psychoanalysis. Most types of shorter-term therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, include discussion of past feelings, thoughts and behaviors to help you gain insight and make connections that may improve your physical ailment. When seeking a therapist, ask close friends who they would recommend-and consider visiting a few therapists before selecting one.

Are You Harming Your Health?

When researchers gave 5,614 adults personality tests, those who were antagonistic (aggressive, competitive, manipulative and/or quick to express anger) were 40% more likely to develop arterial thickening (a risk factor for heart attack and stroke) than those who were least antagonistic. To help control anger and antagonism, consult the American Psychological Association Web site, www.apa.org/helpcenter/controlling-anger.aspx. Or consider seeing a therapist for more strategies.

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