How Emotions Make Us Sick and How Counseling Can Help

You are your own best friend and your worst enemy

How emotions make us sick

Sarita and Surabhi went to the same school, shared the same group of friends, and had identical dreams about career and family. Today, Sarita is married and has an academically brilliant daughter. She is financially secure, managing her own boutique, and enjoys good health. Yet, she is depressed and undergoing therapy.

On the other hand, Surabhi is diabetic. She has had several miscarriages, and is not as financially sound as she would like to be. Nevertheless, she is optimistic about life, and often gives pep talks to Sarita. Inference: unhappiness is not necessarily a result of external circumstances.

Rohit and Prakash are colleagues in a cramped office. They report to the same hot-headed boss, and draw the same salary. They also have similar financial obligations in the family. Rohit has an ulcer and frequent migraines, while Prakash is healthy.

There are a million factors that contribute to our vulnerability to illness, but medical and psychological experts are convinced that the deciding factor is firmly in our own control.

This means that happiness, or misery, health or illness, are choices that we make. In other words, misfortunes are not misfortunes at all, but our own views or attitudes towards situations. Yes, this is not the easiest of concepts to accept, but alas, it is the truth and nothing but the truth. It also means that we have the power to reverse such self-defeating views or self-destructive attitudes that cause intense physical and emotional illness.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Our views and attitudes develop in our growing years, due to learning from the environment and/or early childhood experiences. They are, thereafter, maintained as inflexible and rigid thinking patterns by constant self-[re]indoctrination of such views.

If you have experienced frustrations in the past because your desires were unfulfilled, you might develop a typical thinking pattern: “I’ll never get what I want, I know it won’t work out for me; it never does, so why try?” This is nothing short of over-generalization: it becomes deeply ingrained, a “flawed belief.” It also leads to the feeling: that happiness is unattainable, as it is predicts the future even when there’s no evidence to back the idea.

This “flawed belief,” in turn, causes pessimism, depression, and a sense of feeling like a victim of some irreversible fate. It also leads to behavioral consequences, inactivity and lethargy. This results in not pursuing your goals actively, or being left with unfulfilled desires. This vicious cycle only expands with reinforcement of the belief that, “I’ll never get what I want, so why try?” Result: you’ll remain stuck with a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The question now arises: is there anything we can do about our own self-destructive tendencies? The answer is: yes!

You need not be a rocket scientist to decipher its fulsome connotation. That thinking patterns are nothing but bad habits, and you can work on changing a habit. Agreed, it is difficult, and it takes time, but it is possible. You can do it. You can make a conscious choice, and change for the good!

Feelings of Helplessness

Flawed attitudinal and behavior patterns increase our susceptibility to a host of serious diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, cancer, and immune-related diseases, including Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome [AIDS].

If there are feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, or a sense that you’ve been victimized by factors beyond your control, and you have no power to change it, your immune system starts “co-operating” with such thoughts. The fact is – you’re not trying to change your life. You have entered a phase – a phase of “giving up.” You simply surrender – helplessly. The outcome: your immune mechanism gets depressed, and you become susceptible to a whole host of illnesses and syndromes.

Besides your self-destructive thought pattern of helplessness of being the victim, and having no control, there is also another equally self-defeating thought pattern. It presents the overcharged, pushy perfectionist, obsessed with exerting perfect control over himself and others. The key words are “perfect control.”

People create traps for themselves with “musts” that cannot be satisfied. The cognitive process that facilitates the creation of stress almost always involves irrational beliefs. They include rigid, inflexible and usually unexamined personal philosophies and attitudes that we all possess to varying degrees. They can take the form of unconditional demands, such as, “I have to be successful,” “I must have absolute control over everything at all times, or else it would be awful, and it would mean that I am inadequate.” “I should be perfect in all my roles and, if I cannot, I’m worthless.”

People with generalized anxiety require very little in the form of activating events to perpetuate their anxiety. In fact, their own compelling and irrational belief system about events is usually adequate to trigger a reaction in them – to precipitate lurking anxiety, if not “danger.”

Experts contend that psycho-physiological disorders that develop or worsen as a direct result of such self-inflicted pressures and stress include peptic ulcer, hypertension, migraine and tension headaches, lower back pain, temporo-mandibular joint syndrome, sciatica, lupus, multiple sclerosis, arteriosclerosis [hardening of the arteries] and others.

It is also now well-documented that irrational beliefs are the foundation of prolonged arousal. As a matter of fact, emotional anguish has been shown to be the prime cause of most ills associated with stress. It is also evidenced that extended arousal states and emotional angst may lead to mental breakdown, or even death, due to the long-drawn-out, deleterious effects of the stress hormones in the body.

Remember, how or what we choose to view in a given, or not given, situation is in our hands. Life has a number of hassles, but whether we see them as hassles, or horrors, or “this-too-shall-pass,” is in our hands. Think about it!

In the words of philosopher Herodotus, “We are not disturbed by things, but by our opinion of things.”

Counseling: Need of the Hour

Statistics shows that the rate of psychological disturbances leading to suicide, homicide, marital breakdown, alcoholism, drug abuse etc., are increasing at an alarming rate all over the world. It would seem that as material comforts of life are increasing due to scientific explosion, mental health is sliding down the alley. Mental health is achieved when man is completely psychologically mature or self-actualized; psychological disturbances are nothing but a failure of such development.

According to National Mental Health Program, about 20-30 million Indians are in need of some form of mental health care. Every year, 2,50,000 new cases are reported.

These figures do not include the thousands that may be suffering in silence without access to help. The fact is that with timely intervention and proper care, at least 60 per cent of these disturbed people can recover completely; and, at least 70 per cent can avoid chronic illness and disability. A large number of people can also be helped merely by listening empathically and actively, thus, establishing caring human interaction that can allow the disturbed individual to explore, understand and change something in himself/herself to solve problems. This is called personal counseling.

Personal counseling has never been more needed than it is today. Reason: there is an urgent need to rescue toxic and failing relationships; the relationship of man/woman with oneself, relationships within families, between neighbors, between communities, and between countries, before we self-destruct ourselves.

The Invisible Stigma of Mental Health

We are obsessed with, and are doing so much for increasing our longevity without even thinking of the quality of life we lead? Physical health and wellbeing are given the highest priority with newer drugs flooding the market everyday. Has anyone ever thought as much about emotional and mental wellbeing?

The World Health Organization [WHO] has declared that the emotional health of humanity is declining, that cases of depression, nervous anxiety and psychosomatic disorders are on the rise, and that family doctors should look for signs in a patient, which would indicate the need for counseling.

In a society where going to the gym for physical fitness training and work-outs is considered as the “in-thing” to do, it is sad to see mental and emotional fitness and training are not accorded the same status.

There is also an invisible stigma attached to counseling; as a matter of fact, general practitioners hesitate to refer cases for personal counseling fearing that their patients may take offense. Denial of the need for therapy only compounds the problem, for if there is anything worse than having a problem, it is denying that you have one.

Timely intervention through counseling can avert many a disaster. Besides the removal of the stigma of counseling and correct referrals by family, friends and family doctors, what is required is creating an awareness of the vital need for counseling, and the knowledge of the availability of such help. Those who need intervention and counseling should not only be encouraged to reach out for help, but should also be applauded for the decision of taking active steps for bettering their life.

Friend in Need

India has just about 3,000 counselors and the actual requirement for counselors is apparently enormous. But, the fact is – there are several misconceptions about the nature and intention of counseling and therapy. Many people believe that the purpose of therapy is to talk about their problems, rather than devising active means of solving these problems. It is not talk that is important, but action.

For successful therapy, certain essential conditions need to be fulfilled.

  • Identifying something as a problem. Many people who are unfulfilled and seem to suffer are in denial about having a problem
  • Accepting the possibility that something can be done about it. Many people admit having problems, but feel that this is the way they are and that nothing can be done about it
  • Expressing a desire to change. Many people say they have problems, and acknowledge the possibility of change, but seem uninterested in changing
  • A willingness to make an effort and do whatever it takes to change. This is crucial in distinguishing people who change from those who don’t, and this is what finally determines the success or failure of counseling.

The fact is, psychological growth and emotional re-education, like any other form of learning and development, call for active participation on the part of the learner. The counselee needs to be committed, do whatever it takes, and as a result have what s/he wants. Because, the objective of all counseling and therapy is to get the counselee to understand that the locus of control is in him/her – and, taking responsibility for his/her contribution to his/her situation and, thus, get him/her to fully participate in his/her own healing and work towards leading a healthy and harmonious life.

Hassle, Not Horror

Healthy balance is optimal control in which the individual actively takes care of everything that needs to be taken care of, and also has the capacity to stop and say, “No, that’s not my problem.” In short, a healthy and moderate alternative would be: “Do your best, and leave the rest.” However this may be, under-control and over-control are two damaging extremes. They lead to an unhealthy body-mind.

Now, the question arises: how does one achieve optimal control and now where to draw the line. One big, practical answer is self-awareness. Self-awareness is listening to your body-mind when it indicates an imbalance in the form of an illness, through good organizing and time management. It also involves changing your self-defeating thoughts and irrational belief systems, which leave you with overwhelming and debilitating emotions.

For example, if someone is impolite to you, you can either choose to say, “He’s having a bad day,” or shrug it away though it’s annoying. Or, you could rave and rant: “Why is this happening to me?“How dare he!?” and let out a barrage of expletives. This will escalate your initial annoyance to hostile rage and only serve to affect your physical and emotional health adversely. Remember — to be hassled and angry all the time is as bad as being a chain smoker. The effects on your health either way is equally destructive.

People often become additionally accident-prone because of extreme emotional reactions – these reactions make you uptight, exhausted and distracted. Let’s say you are tense and anxious while walking down the street. Your preoccupation, with your thoughts leading to your overwhelming emotions, makes you unaware towards your surroundings, and you trip and fracture your arm, or you don’t see the car approaching, nor do you hear the driver honking. You may meet with an accident.

Now, that we have established that our thinking is by far the most important factor in generating emotions, it becomes imperative that we become aware of our thoughts. In addition to this, we must make sure that we learn to think in more healthy and helpful ways.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Minnu Bhonsle
Dr Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, is a Mumbai-based consulting psychotherapist and counsellor. She conducts training programmes in Personal Counselling [Client-centred Therapy] and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and also workshops in Stress Management, Art of Listening, Couple Therapy, and Communication Skills. Minnu has co-authored the book, The Ultimate Sex Education Guide along with Dr Rajan Bhonsle.


  1. Thanku sir for sharing the information….

    an awsome article to refresh the learnings and to put into practice….:)

  2. Ma’am,it’s such a pleasure to read such informative articles.Truly changes my perspective and helps me come to terms with my situation better.Thank you.

  3. Dear Minoo Ma’am,

    It is always a pleasure to read your articles. The dimension and perspective is original and enlightening. I fully agree with you and have always felt so but yet we tend to falter at times and that is when your articles come as inspiration and motivation. Thank you Dr. Rajan for sharing them with us.

  4. Dear Mam/Sir,
    The article is simply great. I even asked my 10 year old son to go through it. Its good that we are able to actually read what happens to be part and parcel of life in such simpler words. Hope this channel of awareness among the common man helps in bringing new hope of life and happiness.

  5. Dear Madam/Sir,
    Very true one important thing we all forget in our busy life schedule is to enjoy ourselves and find some time for finding peace within our own self and living life with fullest of joy without much material expectations.

    Thanks Mam.


  6. Dear Madam,
    I always try to get hold of your articles . As usual , they help me to better my perspective .

    Thank you Dr. Rajan for keeping us informed.

  7. Hello Dr Minu,
    liked your article a lot – just wanted to add -a never fail way to get a mood boost on a daily basis -get a maid – u end up feeling really really happy every day cos she turns up & gets the house work done! i do for sure. Delegation is a wonderful thing.


  8. dear mam/sir read ur article just to read it was so soothing to the soul like a mothers touch now i feel like i can take on the world.i liked most was hassle, not horror.

  9. Hi Madam,

    I read your article – very nice and interesting to go through each word. How clearly you have defined everything in one article so well written. While reading I really felt I was sitting in front of you and you are giving a lecture on the same topic. Thanks sir for forwarding the same to us.

  10. dear ma’am,
    i read the article and felt very close to you. i could actually imagine me hearing the words personally from you. the way you understand and make others understand is commendable. you just make negativity so easy to overpower. reading this article has helped me by subtly entering my system and transmuting the negativity into positivity. please keep me posted with more such articles. makes me feel closer to reality and helps me find the strength within.


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