Uncovering the Mind-Body Connection: The Mind and Body Interact in Powerful Ways that Affect our Physical and Mental Health.
The debate about the mind-body connection goes back thousands of years.
From ancient philosophers and religions to modern science, opinions differ as to whether mind and body are related, if the two can influence each other, and how that interaction takes place.
Although contemporary science and most health care practices traditionally study and treat the two entities as separate, a growing body of research supports the existence of a bidirectional relationship between the two.
The mind-body interaction is bidirectional
“Because emotions manifest in the body as physical sensations, it follows that physical sensations can produce corresponding emotions.”– Lauri Nummenmaa
The mind-body interaction is a two-way street. Emotional stressors affect heart rate, blood pressure, gastric acid secretion, bowel movements and sleep, which can contribute to the onset or worsening of physical disorders, even without prior illness. In the same way, physical sensations or illnesses can affect a person's thinking or mood.
For example, your body's perception of the warmth of a blanket wrapped around your shoulders on a cold winter's night can provide a feeling of happiness and safety. In contrast, people with chronic, recurrent, or life-threatening diseases often experience anxiety and depression.
The digestive system is profoundly controlled by the mind, and stress hijacks the bidirectional brain-gut axis
The digestive tract plays a central role in our dialogue with the brain. It is often referred to as our "second brain" because it is the only organ that has an independent neural network of over 100 million neurons embedded in the intestinal wall.
Chronic pain and common functional gastrointestinal disorders, such as dyspepsia, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, etc., are all evidence of the reciprocal link between the body and the mind. Another familiar example is stage fright. Anyone who dreads public speaking knows the "butterflies in the stomach" that come with the agonizing prospect of facing an audience for a presentation. In the age of Covid-19, the same brain-to-gut stress reaction can occur just before sharing the screen on a Zoom call.
In the same way that gut bacteria are involved in the regulation of basic physiological and mental processes, including mood and memory, the brain also influences the gut microbiome, which in turn affects behavior. For example, several studies have shown that stress suppresses beneficial gut bacteria and promotes the release of inflammatory cytokines that disrupt brain neurochemistry (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, etc.), resulting in a rise of anxiety and depression. Nearly 50% of people with chronic gastrointestinal disorders, such as Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome, also experience increased anxiety and depression.
A better understanding of how the brain-gut axis controls common gastrointestinal disorders may allow gastroenterologists to find new and better ways to treat these conditions. Recent research by Levinthal and Strick suggests that cortical targets may be identified for the development of novel brain-based therapies to prevent stress-induced gastric ulcers.
The brain-immune system interaction
The pathways and mechanisms by which the brain and the immune system interact are only beginning to be identified. Studies have shown that the brain communicates with white blood cells. Prolonged negative emotions, such as stress, anxiety, and depression, can depress the immune system and increase the risk of infection. Conversely, positive emotions buffer the body’s response to stress while encouraging social connections and lifestyle changes, such as healthy eating, sleeping, and regular exercise, that boost immunity.
The brain-trauma link
In a previous post, we talked about the mind-body connection in the context of traumatic events.
We learned that the experience of trauma will leave an imprint on the mind and body.
The loss of a loved one, an accident, a natural disaster, a war, or simply a traumatic event related to one's subjective experience are all traumas that leave imprints on the mind and body.
Unresolved past trauma, if left untreated, can have lasting effects on our emotional and physical well-being and is encoded in our bodies as traumatic memory.
Body intelligence and mindfulness as powerful tools for effective self-regulation
How can we influence the unconscious dynamic between our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations?
The body is constantly exposed to external and internal stressors. It communicates what it needs to survive and cope with these stressors - we just need to actively listen. Recognizing our body’s signals provides valuable clues for developing what we call "body intelligence". For example, admitting "I feel anxiety in my body today" prompts the amygdala to relax. When the mind becomes aware of what it is feeling, the body calms down. The ability to understand our body language is critical because it can help prevent and treat physical and mental illness.
While body intelligence cannot eliminate illness, it can raise our awareness of how our body feels. It can ease some conscious or unconscious symptoms of stress such as, chest pain, headache, or heart rate variability, which may be expressions of underlying emotions such as anger, fear, or anxiety.
Thus, the recognition of the mind-body connection underscores the need to take a more holistic approach to the mind and body as an integrated entity, and to explore the potential of practices such as mindfulness, meditation, and yoga to strengthen the mind-body connection to alleviate illness and enhance well-being.
Mindfulness is an essential tool for developing body intelligence and promoting effective self-regulation, as it allows us to identify and act on our emotions.
“Mindfulness is characterized by dispassionate, non-evaluative and sustained moment-to-moment awareness of perceptible mental states and processes. This includes continuous, immediate awareness of physical sensations, perceptions, emotional states, thoughts, and images.” (Grossman, et al., 2003).
To conclude, while we instinctively perceive the link between our mind and our body, how much attention do we pay to our bodily sensations at any given moment? Take a moment to acknowledge how you are feeling physically right now, as well as any emotions you may be experiencing e.g., joy, sadness, calm. Over time, this process will help you become more attuned to your emotions and those of the people around you. Eventually, you will have a better understanding of the connection between your body and your mind.