Our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes can positively or negatively affect our complete biological functioning. Our minds can actually affect how healthy our bodies are. On the other hand, what we do with our physical body (what we eat, how much we exercise and even our posture) can impact our mental state (positively or negatively). This results in a very complex mind-body interrelationship.
The brain plus the peripheral nervous system, the endocrine plus the immune system, and so, all the organs of our body and in turn all the emotional responses we have, do share a common chemical language and are continually communicating with one another.
The history of mind-body connection
Awareness of the mind-body connection is by no means new. Until approximately 300 years ago, virtually every system of medicine throughout the world treated the mind and body as a whole. During the 17th century is when the Western world started to see the mind and the body as two distinct entities. In this view, the body was equivalent to a machine, complete with replaceable and independent parts with no connection whatsoever to the mind.
This Western viewpoint had definite benefits, acting as the foundation for advances in surgery, trauma care, pharmaceuticals and other areas of allopathic medicine. However, it also significantly reduced scientific inquiry into humans’ emotional and spiritual life and downplayed their innate ability to heal on their own.
In the 20th century, this view gradually started to change. Researchers began to study the mind-body connection and scientifically demonstrate complex links between the two. Extensive research has confirmed the medical as well as mental benefits of meditation, mindfulness training, yoga, and other mind-body practices.
What exactly is meant by the “mind”?
It’s important to understand that “mind” is not synonymous with brain. Instead, the mind consists of mental states such as thoughts, emotions, beliefs, attitudes, and images. The brain is the hardware that allows to experience such mental states.
Mental states can be fully conscious or even unconscious. We can have emotional reactions to situations without being aware of why we are reacting. Each mental state has a physiology associated with it which means a positive or negative effect can be felt in the physical body. For example, the mental state of anxiety can cause you to produce stress hormones.
Various mind-body therapies focus on becoming more conscious of mental states. Using this increased awareness, one can guide the mental states in a better, less destructive direction.
Research on yoga and meditation has further explored and implied the connection between mind, body and spirit. Studies show that the mindful movement and breathing done in yoga activates the relaxation response (that is the rest-and-digest system), via the vagus nerve. Consequently, yoga happens to move the nervous system out of the “fight, flight, or freeze” response associated with stress into the “rest and digest” response — increasing the emotional well-being. Furthermore, yoga increases levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps relax the mind.
Nutritional and emotional impact on mind-body
What goes into our body also impacts our mind and mental health. What we eat has the power to prevent or help reverse mental health challenges. The impact of food on our mood; moreover, the specific nutrients have been linked towards measurable positive outcomes in mental and emotional well-being.
In addition to that, the mind-body connection manifests in the communication between the brain and the gut. About 95 percent of serotonin, one of the primary hormones involved in the mood and emotion regulation, is produced in the gastrointestinal tract. Sometimes referred to as the “the second brain” or “belly brain,” this enteric (intestinal-related) nervous system consists of some 100 million sheaths of neurons embedded in the walls of the gut. Moreover, the information travels mostly from the gut to the brain rather than vice versa.
As a result, researchers have found that people with healthy, diverse gut microbes are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. Furthermore, studies demonstrate that replacing bad bacteria in the gut with good bacteria can significantly alter mood and emotional regulation.
For example, neurological pathways connect parts of the brain that process emotions with the spinal cord, muscles, cardiovascular system, and even the digestive tract. This allows major life events, stressors, or emotions to trigger physical symptoms. You may have experienced this aspect of the mind-body connection when you feel butterflies in your stomach — you feel nervous, or your heart feels like it is pounding out of your chest, or you are under intense stress.
These intersecting systems help to establish the mind-body connection that influences the maintenance of health or the development of disease. For example, emotions like anxiety can trigger increased stress hormones, which in turn may suppress the immune system and set the stage for infections.
When you experience emotional states like sadness, joy, or anger, physiological sensations happen to occur in different areas of your body. Emotions like anger, fear, guilt, anxiety, sadness, jealousy, and stress can manifest within the body and contribute to imbalance followed by a disease. For example, you are likely familiar with the way fear can contribute to upsetting digestion or how tension can often lead to headaches.
What you believe can lead to disease
One common way you may experience the interaction of belief and physical sensations is when dealing with chronic pain. In the essence, pain is a combination of the physical sensations you experience, the emotions you tend to feel, and the meaning that pain has for you.
Emotional suffering, physical pain, and other sensations share certain similarities in their neural pathways. For example, feelings of anger or insecurity can disrupt the regular beating of the heart and flow of the breath. This further activates the sympathetic nervous system in the same way that occurs when you are facing a threat creating an even greater sense of uneasiness and pain.
You can see this type of physiology playing out in people with a lack of social support, who are more likely to have cardiovascular and other health problems than those with consistent and supportive relationships. So, to avoid the build-up of toxic emotions, you need to remain present and aware.
Training awareness with mindfulness
Awareness is something that can be trained through a variety of mental health practices. Some mind-body practices include:
- Gentle movement and meditation, such as yoga and tai chi.
- Biofeedback, a type of therapy that uses sensors attached to your body to measure the key body functions. Biofeedback can help you learn more about how your body reacts. This may help you learn how to control your breathing, your heart rate, and other functions impacted by stress.
- Progressive relaxation, a technique where you concentrate on tightening, then relaxing various muscle groups. This can be combined with other meditative and breathing exercises for a deep sense of physical as well as mental relaxation.
For these practices, you may need to seek help from an experienced guide, mentor, or professional. However, you can do some mind-body exercises right in your own home, car or office, and you only have to spare a few moments. For example, mindfulness meditation is something you can do when you have time, and you can find a few minutes to focus. You don’t need a guide, a yoga mat or any other special equipment. You just need to close your eyes, pay attention to your breath, and focus on the present thoughts. When your attention wanders, return it to the present moment.
This is how mindfulness can help you bring focus, tune out distractions and find a little calm in the moment — and over time, help your mind and body feel better, also learning to perceive mind-body interrelationship as something natural taking care of it as a whole.
Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash