Western culture has always considered the mind and body as separate entities. But in recent years science has begun supporting what eastern cultures have embraced for thousands of years. That body and mind are interconnected. Your attitude, thoughts and behavior can trigger the release of chemicals that reduce symptoms associated with chronic conditions like IBS, migraine, anxiety, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and fibromyalgia just to name a few.
A growing body of institutions are gaining a healthy respect for the mind-body connection. So much so, colleges like Columbia University and Allegany College of Maryland have created programs to teach mind-body skills. In addition, practitioners working with underserved populations have seen first-hand the positive results of mind-body therapies like meditation, relaxation and breathing exercises. Patient populations who incorporated these techniques have benefited from reduction in depression, anxiety and chronic pain. But what is the mind-body connection and how does it help with pain management and other symptoms of chronic illness?
In an article published by Johns Hopkins Medicine, the mind-body connection is defined as, the “the belief that the causes, development and outcomes of a physical illness are determined from the interaction of psychological, social factors and biological factors.” (“The Mind-Body Connection”, n.d.)
You don’t need to read a textbook to understand the mind-body connection. Our own experiences tell us that some connection exists.
Has your heart ever raced while stuck in traffic on the way to a job interview? Have you ever gotten a “nervous stomach” that made you have to go to the bathroom? Have you ever felt so stressed that you got a headache? These are all physical manifestations incited by thoughts. How can anxious thoughts have such an impact on how we feel? Understanding the stress response may provide some insight.
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Stress and the Fight or Flight Response
Another name for the stress response is the fight or flight response. It refers to our body’s innate physiological response to a perceived danger. The fight or flight response is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Along with the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), it regulates bodily functions.
During the fight or flight response, chemicals produced in our bodies prepare us to take action. Fight for your lives or run like hell. These chemicals include adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol generates glucose which fuels the heart, brain, lungs and large muscle groups. Meanwhile, the immune system, digestion and other bodily processes are suppressed.
Nature intended for the fight or flight response to be short in duration. But in today’s society, the “danger” never ends.
We’re under a constant barrage of daily and even hourly threats. Job stress. Bad news in the headlines. Don’t have time for your daily dose of bad news on tv? That’s okay, your phone will personally deliver bad news to you. All this while running at top speed to keep up with the demands of our relentless schedules.
Illness results when the fight or flight response is in constant overdrive. Chronic stress can lead to immune dysregulation, a precursor to autoimmune disease. It can also result in high blood pressure, heart disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome.
Relaxation Response and Impact on Body Chemistry
When imminent danger is no longer a threat, stress hormones return to their normal levels. The body relaxes from it’s aroused state. Heart rate and blood pressure decrease. Digestive functioning is restored. This returning to a more stable equilibrium is known as homeostasis.
The relaxation response is a deep state of relaxation. Think about how relaxed you feel after a warm bath. Or a foot rub. Or after a full-body massage. This state of calm is the result of chemicals produced by the brain.
The relaxation response is the key to managing symptoms of many chronic conditions.
A number of chemicals are released through deep relaxation techniques like meditation. Among them are serotonin, endorphins and gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). The effects of these chemicals are described below.
|Known as the happiness hormone, serotonin invokes a sense of well-being, satisfaction and optimism. Reduced serotonin levels can lead to anxiety and depression. If this is an area you struggle with, you may want to consider implementing some relaxation techniques.
|Endorphins are connected with the brain’s pleasure center. They’re the same chemicals that get released when you exercise, have a drink or engage in intimacy. Endorphins are responsible for the “runner’s high”, a euphoric feeling after exercise. More importantly, endorphins help relieve pain and enhance the immune response.
|Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA)
|GABA is known as an immunomodulator. That’s short for it helps the immune system to self-regulate. GABA appears to have a positive impact on autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes.
How the Mind-Body Connection Impacts YOU
The connection between mind and body is conveyed in a discipline known as psychoimmunology. This connection has been described as “inseparable”. Whatever affects one will have a direct impact on the other. More specifically, psychoimmunology studies the relationship between the immune and central nervous systems and the mind.
What does that mean for you? It means if you you’re hard on yourself, have a negative outlook about about your circumstances or constantly beat yourself up mentally, you’re at risk of activating the same stress response responsible for high blood pressure, headaches, GERD, depression and many other chronic illnesses.
Likewise if you nurture your body and mind, regularly participating in activities that promote a sense of calmness in body and mind and activate the relaxation response, you can mitigate symptoms associated with chronic illness.
Remember, your thoughts and attitudes, whether positive or negative, can have a direct impact on your symptoms.
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Bidirectional Relationship Between Thoughts and Health
Not only do your thoughts affect your body. Your body affects your thoughts. It’s a two-way street.
When you’re coming down with a cold or bug, several physiological changes occur. Within an hour or two of being infected, the immune system starts sending signals to the brain. These signals sent by the immune system alter neural activities. Thought, mood and behavior are altered as a result. This is known as the “nonspecific immune response”. Another name for it is “the sickness response”.
If your brain can alter your behavior and cause you to slow down, it can redirect more energy towards fighting the infection. So you know how you lose your appetite when you get sick? Or maybe you feel tired. It’s all part of the sickness response.
Constant pain or chronic health conditions can make you stressed, depressed and anxious. And you know what happens when you’re stressed, depressed and anxious? It makes you physically ill. It’s a vicious cycle.
The Placebo Effect
The good news is we can use this two-way relationship for our benefit.
There’s a well known phenomenon known as “the placebo effect”. During clinical trials one group of patients receive the actual drug. Another group receives a placebo, or inactive medicine. Patients who were unknowingly given the placebo instead of the medicine experience an improvement in symptoms. Because they believed they had received something that could help them.
Patients who have taken placebos have been known to experience improvements in pain management, nausea, fatigue and stress-related insomnia.
How Your Mind Can Improve Your Health
Positive outcomes associated with the mind-body connection can be compared with the placebo effect. At least according to Professor Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
According to Kaptchuk, one important reason why placebos work is because of rituals. In clinical trials, the ritual includes taking the medicine at a specific time. The clinical trial in and of itself involves many rituals. Procedures are performed. Patients are closely monitored.
Kaptchuk speculates that the attention the patient receives along with the placebo makes their minds believe they feel better. Even in cases where patients knew they were given a placebo.
So not only do positive thoughts produce chemicals that help you to feel better. By implementing routine strategies that trigger the relaxation response, you can help strengthen the mind-body connection. The end result is bound to have some positive impact on your health.
Let’s be clear. I’m not saying you can wish away your autoimmune disease or other chronic illness. But here’s what you can do. By routinely practicing techniques that activate the relaxation response you can:
- Reduce the severity of symptoms related to IBS, migraine, anxiety, depression and rheumatic diseases such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, Ankylosing Spondylitis and Fibromyalgia
- Enhance sleep
- Reduce pain
- Strengthen the immune system
- Enhance the body’s healing process
- Reduce the impact of chronic stress which leads to inflammation, a precursor and agitator of autoimmune disease.
We’ve already seen how the mind can impact the body. Mind-body therapy uses thought, emotions and mental imaging as tools to bring body and mind into a deep state of relaxation. These tools have the ability to direct the brain.
I know I mentioned this before but it’s worth repeating. Calming, positive thoughts cause the brain to produce more endorphins and GABA. Endorphins help ease pain. GABA helps the immune system.
Many mind-body therapies are receiving growing recognition for their ability to reduce symptoms associated with IBS, migraine, anxiety, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and fibromyalgia to name a few. These include meditation, guided imagery, massage, breathwork, yoga, mindful walking and tai chi. Some of these activities can even be practiced by people with limited mobility.
- Meditation allows you to focus your attention. You may focus on thoughts such as forgiveness and compassion. You may focus on your breath. You may focus on different areas of your body as you mentally perform a full body scan. There are so many forms of meditation. Sure, you may get momentarily distracted with other thoughts. But don’t judge them. Don’t form an opinion about them or yourself. Just notice, and release. For me, it’s like being a spectator staring at an object in the distance. My thoughts are like the people who walk past me. When I become aware that I’m focusing on the people, I simply choose to redirect my thoughts back to that object.
- With guided imagery you envision images in your mind. You can imagine whatever you like. But use all of your senses. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? What do you smell? Are you sitting beneath the stars on a crisp evening nestled with a warm blanket around a toasty fire pit? Experience the setting. Because guess what? Your brain doesn’t care whether you’re physically there or just imagining the setting. It interprets both the same way.
- With massage gentle or strong pressure is applied to the muscles and joints by rubbing, kneading, tapping and stroking. Many types of massage exist, with each offering various benefits to both the body and the mind. While Swedish massage offers a gentle touch that relieves tension, other types of massage like lymphatic drainage massage remove toxins and improve circulation. Still other forms like cranial sacral therapy aid in the relief of a plethora of conditions from migraine, constipation and irritable bowel syndrome to sinus infection, fibromyalgia and neck pain.
- With breathwork, breathing is intentionally and systematically altered using various techniques. For example one technique requires you to breathe through alternate nostrils for a specific period of time. Another technique known as 4-7-8 breathing has you inhale for a count of 4 seconds, hold for a count of 7, then exhale for a count of 8. One healthcare provider summarizes breathwork this way. “Breathwork helps put the brakes on an acute stress response and diverts the health problems associated with chronic stress.” (“Trend Time: What is Breathwork, n.d.”)
- Yoga is an ancient practice that unites body, mind and spirit. It combines breath control, meditation and bodily postures called asanas to promote calmness. When practiced regularly yoga results in improved health, mental stability and self-awareness. Some forms of yoga are fast paced, like Vinyasa. In Vinyasa yoga, breath and movement are coordinated as your body continually moves from one pose to the next. Yin yoga, moves at a slower pace as seated poses are held for longer periods. Other forms of yoga include hatha, restorative, kundalini, bikram, iyengar, ashtanga, anusara, jivamukti and prenatal yoga.
- Mindful walking combines movement with mindfulness, a form of meditation. The goal is not to reach a destination. The goal is to become keenly aware of how you feel in the present moment as you immerse yourself in your surroundings. Not judging, but appreciating. Using the 5 senses to experience the sights, sounds and smells, how your body feels, and what you taste. Mindful walking isn’t subjective to your location. You could be on a busy city street or a quiet, wooded park. What’s important is that you are present. Not walking on autopilot, but aware.
- Tai Chi is a form of martial arts and is performed while standing. Described as “meditation in motion”, tai chi consists of gentle, choreographed poses and postures that flow into each other without pausing. Like yoga, it incorporates deep breathing and stretching. There are 5 different forms of tai chi. Yang is the most widely practiced. With yang, wide, circular movements are performed in a slow, exaggerated manner. The Wu style of tai chi focuses on smaller movements. With Wu, the back leg serves as an anchor while the body extends and leans forward and backward. Other forms of tai chi are Chen, Hao, and Sun.
What you think, whether good or bad, impacts chemicals produced in the body. These chemicals can positively or negatively affect your health. You can tap into your body’s healing power by cultivating a positive outlook and strengthening the mind-body connection. Many of us with chronic illness search for natural remedies to alleviate our pain, reduce inflammation and calm our symptoms. Now we can expand our search to simply look within.
Johns Hopkins Healthcare Solutions. The Mind-Body Connection. (n.d.) https://www.johnshopkinssolutions.com/the-mind-body-connection-2/#:~:text=Mind%2DBody%20Connection%20is%20the,social%20factors%20and%20biological%20factors.
Trend Time: What is Breathwork? (Hint it will lower your stress). (n.d.) https://www.leehealth.org/health-and-wellness/healthy-news-blog/top-trends/trend-time-what-is-breathwork-hint-it-will-lower-your-stress#:~:text=Breathwork%20helps%20put%20the%20brakes,breathing%20helps%20reduce%20blood%20pressure.