Our minds and bodies are one, and they operate in perfect accord – usually.
The mind-body connection is a complex phenomenon and we still don’t understand it fully.
In order to function, our bodies need oxygen and food. We constantly use energy to keep our body moving, which is why we also need to replenish it. Without rest and adequate nutrition, our bodies suffer.
Our mind works the same way – it mirrors the same processes. In a sense, we have to provide our mind with the nutrients it needs i.e. the thoughts and feelings that keep our mental wheels running.
The intersection between the mental and the physical is the place where the magic happens. We should always strive for equilibrium.
How does the body-mind connection work?
Physical sensations are a combination of several causes, both physical and mental. There is no such thing as an isolated feeling or physical sensation that hasn’t been induced by yet something else.
The mind-body connection represents all the positive and negative effects of the communication between our biological and psychological functioning.
Think about odors, for example.
When you catch a whiff of a rose, you do that through the smelling apparatus within your nose. But it’s your brain that processes the smell, giving you a pleasant feeling or even evoking memories of a time, place, and faces. Certain scents may even have strong associations to certain shapes, so some people think about angular shapes when smelling lemon and pepper or they report envisioning a rounded shape when they nose raspberry and vanilla. (Hanson-Vaux et al. 2013)
However, this is just one of the many ways our bodies and minds interact. The problems start when one of the two starts playing tricks on the other.
The mysteries of the brain
Even if you haven’t nurtured an interest in this topic, you must have heard of something called psychosomatic medicine – a field of medicine that studies biopsychosocial factors that can potentially play a significant role in the pathogenesis of the disease.
Though a bit controversial, the idea of searching for the cause of physical illness in the domain of psychology is not that unthinkable. In fact, extensive research has been done in this field and the results are astounding.
One of these studies showed that certain areas of the brain – particularly the prefrontal cortex, insula, amygdala, and the hippocampus – play an important role in regulating immune function and endocrine systems. (Lane & Wager 2009)
When we’re faced with psychological stress, neurotransmitters such as dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine surge. Although this is the inevitable part of our fight or flight response, chronic stress leads to constant elevations in these neurotransmitters, which then suppress the immune system. This raises the risks of many viral infections or other serious conditions.
The most common mind-to-body conditions
Medical science has come a long way into unraveling the mysterious ways our brain can mess us up (although there is still a lot of room for research). Stress is the usual suspect when it comes to the negative psychological impact on our body.
1. Irritable Bowel Syndrome
The gut-brain interaction is stronger than any other brain-organ connection because of the intricate network of neurons in our stomach.
Neurogastroenterology, a fairly new field of research, studies this gut-brain interaction. What it discovered is that “bacteria, including commensal, probiotic, and pathogenic bacteria, in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract can activate neural pathways and central nervous system (CNS) signaling systems.” (Foster & McVey Neufeld 2013)
Thus, researchers say that “psychological stress is an important factor for the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). More and more clinical and experimental evidence showed that IBS is a combination of irritable bowel and irritable brain.” (Qin et al. 2014)
Although psychological stress can’t cause allergies, it can provoke a reaction similar to an allergy or make existing allergy symptoms worse. It can also trigger various skin conditions, such as rosacea and hives.
A study revealed that natural stress exposure during final examinations in students enhanced allergic inflammatory responses (Liu et al. 2002), while yet another study showed that certain traumatic events and family conflicts antecede the development of wheeze in childhood (Calam et al. 2005)
Once the stress hormones are released, blood sugar levels skyrocket in order to provide enough energy to fight the causes of stress. The effect of acute stress on blood sugar levels is usually short-lived.
However, chronic stress that lasts for months and years maintains persistently elevated blood sugar levels. The body constantly defends itself by producing more insulin, which over time increases the risk of diabetes.
Medical handbooks usually describe fibromyalgia as widespread, all-over-the-body pain, accompanied by sleep disturbance, chronic fatigue, and overall mental and emotional distress. Although a satisfactory definition of the disease still evades the academic community, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it affects more than 4 million US adults and 3-6% of the population worldwide.
Although there isn’t a cure for this condition, relaxation is very important for people who have this condition. Mental and emotional stress can cause painful flare-ups. In fact, extreme stress can be what triggers the first emergence of the symptoms – this is why many people get diagnosed with fibromyalgia soon after going through a divorce, losing a job, etc.
When does the mind-body connection come in useful?
Although it often comes up when we talk about diseases, the mind-body connection is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, if we utilize it the right way, its benefits can be unparalleled.
If you’re an avid fan of working out, you’ve certainly heard of the mind-muscle connection and its importance in seeing the results of your hard work at the gym.
Fitness trainers often stress the importance of focusing on the group of muscles you’re exercising as one of the key prerequisites for obtaining good results. Each time you exercise, you should direct your mind to that particular muscle group – think about them flexing and contracting.
This is a deliberate process that will not only help you gain the desired results but will also help you prevent injuries.
Stress is our worst enemy because it affects our health on so many levels. Harnessing your emotional response in stressful situations will help you stay on top and keep health hazards at bay.
When stressed, our minds send warning signals to the brain that we’re under attack. The body responds accordingly and not in a good way – it releases cortisol. This is why you can use your mind as the most potent weapon against stress and stay away from serious stress-related health conditions we already mentioned. Coping with stress is a skill you have to master over time and it requires strong will and perseverance.
Going into Labour
In her efforts to demystify the agony surrounding delivery, Nancy Bardacke (a certified midwife and the author of Mindful Birthing) says that mothers-to-be can’t avoid pain but they can avoid suffering if they practice the mind-body connection, both during pregnancy and delivery.
This mindful approach to birthing means that women should focus on breathing and center their attention to detect and harness every sensation before, during, and after childbirth.
Deepen the Connection
People consider their bodies as something they carry with them, usually a bit reluctantly. When the body is damaged, it becomes a burden that people approach as “something” deprived of intelligence.
This attitude denies the complexity of the energies that make up our whole being.
These energies are in constant communication with each other, and they flow between our sensations, thoughts, and feelings. Ultimately, they have a physical reflection on different parts of the body. This is why it’s impossible to separate what is happening in the human mind from what is happening in the whole organism.
- How to Improve Mind-Muscle Connection When Working Out
- Using Mindfulness Techniques for a Painless Birth