Negative emotions are bad for your health

Our minds and emotions are intimately entwined with our bodies, and we usually think of good health as affecting our well-being, which it certainly does. But our emotions can affect our physical health too.

Positive and negative emotions

A study looked at nearly 5,000 people who were tested for both cardiorespiratory fitness (on a treadmill) and their emotional state.(1)

ACLS participants were mostly Caucasian (98%), well-educated, and worked in executive or professional positions. All participants completed a detailed questionnaire (including a self-report physical activity measure) and underwent an extensive clinical evaluation, including a physical examination, fasting blood chemistry analyses, personal and family health history, anthropometry, smoking and alcohol use, and a maximal exercise treadmill test.

The test of emotional states had two subscales, one each for positive and negative emotions.

The positive emotions were: feeling as good as other people, hopeful, happy, and joy.

Negative emotions were: not able to shake off the blues, depressed, my life had been a failure, fearful, lonely, crying spells, and sad.

The participants were followed for 15 years, and deaths recorded.

As expected, cardiorespiratory fitness significantly lowered mortality rates. Those with high fitness had about half the death rate, hazard ratio 0.54, of those with low fitness.

In participants with high fitness, those with a low level of negative emotion had about half the risk, hazard ratio 0.51, as those with high levels of negative emotion. There was no significant effect of negative emotion in those with low fitness.

Those with both high fitness and low negative emotions had over a 65% reduction in death rate compared to those with low fitness and high negative emotions.

There was no association between positive emotions and death rates.

The study showed that both cardiorespiratory fitness and negative emotions exert independent, and strong, effects on risk of death. Even if you are maximally fit, then having negative emotions can harm you.

How to remove negative emotions

Removing negative emotions could be the subject of an entire bookshelf, and I’m sure it is. The negative emotions listed in the test, “not able to shake off the blues, depressed, my life had been a failure, fearful, lonely, crying spells and sad”, sound a lot like major depression, which has a known effect on mortality. (Raises it, if that’s not obvious.)

Here are some suggestions for getting rid of depression.

  • Get your diet and workout regimen right. Eat paleo, no processed food or, above all, sugar. Hit the gym, lift weights at least twice a week, and add some HIT.
  • Recomp your body: lose fat, gain muscle. The first point above will help you do that. Fat tissue emits loads of inflammatory cytokines, and depression and inflammation are associated.(2)
  • Supplement with magnesium, vitamin D, n-acetylcysteine, fish oil, and curcumin. (Not an exhaustive list; all these can be found on my supplements page.) These have all been shown to have efficacy in depression.
  • Cold showers. These have anti-fatigue, immune-boosting, and above all, antidepressant effects. You won’t feel mopey and depressed after a few minutes in a cold shower, so just do it.
  • Regarding crying spells, if you’re a man, knock it off. That’s not manly behavior and a simple reminder to yourself that it’s not acceptable to cry can work wonders.
  • If you’re lonely, it’s easy to take steps to alleviate the loneliness. Get out, find some like-minded people, go to church. Go volunteer at the animal shelter: you can help animals in need, relieve your loneliness, and also see that there are creatures in this world a lot worse off than you are.
  • Fearfulness is another way of saying anxiety, which is just a vague fear of bad things that haven’t materialized, and likely never will. Try the samurai meditation on death as a cure for anxiety.
  • Feeling like your life has been a failure: in almost all cases, that’s all inside your head and bears little relation to reality. But in any case, a sense of purpose is mighty, so get moving. Quit watching TV and video games, don’t look at porn, cut down or quit drinking. Start building something, like a business or project, start a website.
  • I’m loathe to recommend seeking professional help, as you’ll likely be filled with drugs that do little good and may do harm; furthermore, if you tell a doctor that you’re depressed, that will be on your electronic, fully transferable medical record forever. That being said, it may be possible to find, discreetly, a professional who can help and won’t prescribe drugs that can worsen depression.

Noteworthy from the above study is that positive emotions had no effect. If you’re not feeling joy or happiness, that’s something to be worked on certainly, but that won’t kill you. It’s the feelings of depression and worthlessness that will.

P.S. (added). Several people have mentioned that I neglected to add cold showers to my list of antidepressants.  I certainly did (neglect that), and cold showers are absolutely a must for anyone who is depressed or has anxiety. I’ll add that to the list above.


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14 comments
Simon says January 14, 2016

Great list. I’d personally also recommend CBT. It totally transformed my mental approach to life, and I never looked back.

Reply
    P. D. Mangan says January 16, 2016

    Hi Simon, sorry for the delay in replying. CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is one of the few, or maybe the only, type of counseling that has been shown to work, and it’s not hard to see why, because it’s about the patient changing his outlook through his own efforts. It’s about changing one’s mindset. There’s a book about this, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, that I read ages ago and is very useful. The author was in on the foundations of CBT. Makes Freudianism look like astrology.

    Reply
    Daniel says January 23, 2016

    Hi Simon

    Reply
Philomathean says January 14, 2016

Gorilla Mindset by Mike Cernovich is a must read for those looking to arrest negative schemas.

Reply
Timo Fischer says January 15, 2016

All great suggestions especially Vitamin D since many people have a deficit which causes Depression. I’d add Meditation as a Daily practice for at least 20 minutes the benefits outweigh any excuse one might have not to do it.

Reply
    P. D. Mangan says January 16, 2016

    Thanks, Timo. I agree that vitamin D deficiency is very widespread.

    Reply
Rob H says January 15, 2016

Food for thought there Dennis – as usual. Something I’d definitely add, which I believe has a HUGE effect – cold showers! I’d commented a while back that I was doing these intermittently, but the problem with that is that it’s too easy to fall off the wagon – which I did over the Christmas holiday. Everything else was kept the same, but I lost my buzz/ energy burst in the morning. As soon as I resolved to resume them, every day, it was like a bolt of energy afterwards – extremely energising! The thing is, it was VERY uncomfortable getting back into them again – my body was not prepared for the shock of the extremely cold water here now (its verging on 0 degrees celsius outside temperature here). Fourth consecutive day today, and although the discomfort is still there, I am getting used to it again, and it seems to distress my body less. But, hey it is all worth it for how I feel afterwards – it seems strange but I just can’t wipe the smile off my face once it is over (acute endorphin rush I guess)!

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    Rob H says January 15, 2016

    Oh, and the other cure for depression is to force yourself to go and help out those who are a lot less fortunate than yourself and facing big life problems – for example homeless, terminally ill, street kid charities etc. This will help frame the anxiety/ depression you may experience regarding your own life into its proper context (ie its actually not that bad). Also spend time actively praying for those who are less fortunate than yourself, even if you don’t know them personally. If you truly feel it with your heart, then you will see the difference that will have on your own life. You don’t even need to follow a set religion to do this.

    Reply
Ben says January 15, 2016

Interesting article, thanks! There are other articles on the internet as well on mood/social interaction and their effects on genes through due to epigenetics, so there may be more to this even though it’s intangible.

I also really appreciate your articles on iron, recently discovered this blog and gave a blood donation. A suggestion, if I may, would be an article(s) on water and its effects on health, performance, appearance etc, I’ve read a newborn has a very high water % of body mass, and it is much lower in old people so maybe it merits more investigation.

Offtopic – I’ve been reading about IF and its benefits. However, would a ketogenic diet (nutritional ketosis) without fasting not be the same as IF? Logically, during fasting (lack of food) animals/people lived off their fat reserves, i.e. used fat(ketones) for energy just like in nutritional ketosis.

Reply
    P. D. Mangan says January 16, 2016

    Hi Ben, you’re correct that a ketogenic diet has many similarities to fasting and, while it may not have all the benefits, in many ways it seems to come very close. If you read through my articles on fasting, you’ll see one study that found that restricting carbohydrates for 3 days was physiologically nearly identical to fasting for the same time period. One thing I would point out is that to get all the benefits of fasting (without fasting), protein should be kept at a lower intake as well. Something like a 90% or greater fat ketogenic diet.

    Reply
Jim J says January 15, 2016

The issue of negative mood is one I love to read about and apply to myself as much as I can.
Here are a couple of at least interesting and possibly effective techniques besides the cold showering.
Did you know that if people place a pencil in there mouth horizontally, creating a fake smile for a few minutes, on average they actually report a better mood after a brief follow up. The reverse happens if they grasp the pencil between upper lip and nose creating a sort of sour puss effect.
Taking dominant postures, leaning back with hands clasped behind the head, standing erect with shoulders straight etc. creates a testosterone spike.
Some evidence suggests people who get botox in their face and therefore can’t smile very fully, have a slightly higher expectation of depression.
Certain meditative methods (Loving Kindness Med, Thankfulness Med) create more positive mood.
As the other commenter mentioned, CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) can be very helpful and no drugs involved. google also a psychologist named Martin Seligman and his center for Positive Psychology at U of Penn. his book Learned Optimism is a gem.
Get your pencils out. 🙂

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sabril says January 16, 2016

My homework assignment for you is to figure out the best workout for creating that post-exercise euphoria and feeling of well-being. Which really does a lot to counter negative feelings of stress anxiety etc.

Although I have not experimented with a lot of different workouts, I find that the easiest way to achieve that feeling — while minimizing discomfort during the actual workout — is cardio intervals.

Reply
    P. D. Mangan says January 16, 2016

    I’ve always thought my subjective feelings of well-being were greatest after distance running, which I used to do all the time. But I won’t be taking it up again.

    Reply
Tuba says January 16, 2016

Avoiding women is the most positive path to follow… that is couched the wrong way… avoiding women significantly reduces the negativity in ones life. Single is good. They say married men live longer than single men but it isn’t so. It just seems that way….

Reply
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