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Health & Exercise Forum

Worried Sick? Be Happy in 2017 (Part 1 of 2)

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Jan 16, 2017
Kathryn Schmidt

Kathryn Schmidt

Worried Sick? Don’t Worry, be Be Happy in 2017! Part 1 of 2

Special Feature “ Health & Exercise Forum” with Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine (formerly The Commonwealth Medical College) – The 3rd Monday of every month!

Guest Columnist: Kathryn Schmidt 

Personal Bio: Kathryn majored in psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and completed a post-baccalaureate pre-medical and health program at Northwestern University. Throughout school, she worked as a research assistant, first with stem cell transplant recipients and women affected by gynecological cancers, and then with solid organ transplant patients. Kathryn also worked as a medical aid to man affected by diabetes and blindness. Presently, as a 2nd year medical student at the Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton, PA she serves as a volunteer at the Care and Concern Clinic, as well as at an organization called Pathstone, acting as a mentor to men and women who are transitioning back into the community after having spent time in prison. Kathryn’s academic interests include: cancer, colorectal disease, mechanisms of addiction and adolescent psychiatry. When not studying, working or volunteering, she likes to play tennis, kick-box, ski, and be in the company of good friends or family, whether that be taking a weekend trip to a new place or just having a board game night. Something that makes her really happy is traveling… she has been to all 7 continents and is always ready for the next adventure!

Most people have heard the expression, “worried sick,” but did you know that you can worry enough to the point where it results in emotions that leave you physically ill? For the normal person, this isn’t good, but for the cancer patient, this is just downright dangerous. During my undergraduate education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I worked in a research lab that examined various predictors of recovery from cancer. Specifically, we examined the extent to which mood disturbance impacts cancer patients’ recovery following hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT), which is just a fancy term for a medical procedure in which a donor’s stem cells can be given to a patient suffering from certain cancers of the blood or bone marrow, like leukemia or multiple myeloma. Without getting into the complexity of the study, at the most basic level, we wanted to find out if patients who found meaning in their illness, didn’t avoid unwanted thoughts and emotions, and generally felt less depressed prior to transplant had more successful recoveries and stronger immune systems post-transplant. Our study results echoed the conclusions of similar studies conducted prior to ours, demonstrating that there is indeed crosstalk between our psychological states and the neuroendocrine and immune systems, or in other words, our mental state can affect our physical state.

In patients undergoing HSCT, this is particularly salient, given the critical role of immune restoration in preventing recurrence of cancer, reducing complications, and ensuring survival. Distress, depression, and anxiety have been associated with a downregulation of immune responses relevant to tumor containment among cancer patients, and depressed mood has been linked to relapse and poorer survival following HSCT.1 So now that we know these things, if you are a cancer patient, fighting for your life, the importance of being happy is no longer just for your sanity, but is quite literally one way to increase your chances at a successful recovery. Interesting, right? But how does this apply to you? Well, you don’t have to have cancer for depression or other emotions to weaken your immune system. This basic concept is applicable to all of us in our everyday lives, and this link between the mind and body may be more powerful than you think.

Here are just a few examples of what I’m talking about…

  • Stress can suppress the immune system and over a long period of time, can lead to damaging levels of inflammation, increasing the risk of coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes.2
  • Social isolation can be a powerful predictor of poor health. One study found 209 genes distinguishing lonely people from sociable ones. While the genes of the lonely peole were associated with an inflammatory response, the genes of the sociable ones were associated with an anti-viral response.3
  • Women with early-stage breast cancer who completed a ten-week stress-management program had decreased inflammation, less metastasis (spreading of the cancer), and were better able to fight their tumors, as evidenced by certain physiological markers. Women who only attended a one-day educational seminar did not have the same benefits.4


I wanted to write this article, because I know how easy it is to let our moods affect us for the worse. I have never been shy with my emotions and wear my heart on my sleeve, for the better or for the worse. When someone asks me how my day is (as part of social convention, but not really expecting the person they asked to say much more than “good, thanks, how about yours?,”), and I’m having a particularly bad day, I reply “Not so good!” or something blunt and honest along those lines. I’m sure the people asking the question are a bit caught off guard and think to themselves, “Wow, overshare.” Most of the time, temporary moods like this are just fine; however, when powerful emotions overcome you with such force, and it feels like a tidal wave is crashing down over you, one after the next, it is quite literally very difficult to pick yourself back up – to see the light at the end of the tunnel, to remember all the happy things in life, to not succumb to your emotion rather than fulfill your responsibilities. Some people experience these emotions when they come face to face with tragedy or loss of loved ones, others when dealing with heartache, self-esteem, failure, friendship woes, or moving away, just to name a few.

In medical school, when things outside of school become turbulent, it is very easy to lose focus and to become distracted and distressed. Perhaps, more importantly, in the midst of studying, it is difficult to find the time to do the kind of soul-searching necessary to feel happy again. An overload of new information is thrown at you each day, leaving little time to see family or friends, to get out of town for a few days to clear your head, or to allow thoughts of the outside world to come tumbling into your mind and onto the textbook page you’re currently reading about the musculoskeletal system (or whatever the day’s topic is). And there’s definitely not time for our immune systems to crash and fail us when we need them most.

This same situation is applicable to people outside of medical school though; balancing kids with other obligations or working multiple jobs can’t be easy. SO, my point is, we don’t have time to let our psychological state negatively affect our physical health and immune systems, and if we are sick with something serious, we need to do everything in our power to give ourselves the best fighting chance at recovery. Just knowing that mood and psychological well-being affect our physical state is motivation in itself to decide that we are going to choose happiness. This is not to say that you can’t ever be in a bad mood… you can! We all have bad days, but we should work harder to not let our bad moods consume us.

NEXT WEEK: Part 2: Tips to Being Happy for Your Health!

Read Dr. Mackarey’s Health & Exercise Forum – every Monday in the Scranton Times-Tribune. This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine (The Commonwealth Medical College).