Have you ever felt so nervous, your hands started to shake? Or felt so worried you couldn’t fall asleep at night?
Our emotions often affect the way we feel physically—we even have words to describe these feelings, like “heartache” and “gut-wrenching”. But until recently, scientists didn’t understand just how powerful the connection between mind and body could be.
In part two of Florida Medical Clinic’s series on holistic health, internal medicine specialist Dr. Lakshmi Menezes explains the importance of the mind-body connection, the science behind it, and how our emotions can affect our health (for better or worse).
What is the mind-body connection and why is it important?
The mind-body connection is the link between a person’s thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors and their physical health.
While scientists have long understood that our emotions can affect our bodies, we’re just now beginning to understand how emotions influence health and longevity.
The mind-body connection is an important component of holistic medicine, which is a healthcare philosophy that seeks to treat the whole person, not just their symptoms. Now more than ever, doctors understand the importance of a comprehensive approach to care that includes mind, body, and spirit.
The Science Behind the Mind-Body Connection
Sometimes referred to as the “body’s command center” or the “human supercomputer”, the brain is a remarkable and complex organ. But the brain is not a machine operating separately from the rest of the body—the two are deeply intertwined.
Scientific studies are constantly revealing that the hormones and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) associated with emotion can also have physical effects. They can affect our blood pressure, heart rate, sleep patterns, and even our appetite.
Once thought of as a fringe science, research into the mind-body connection entered the mainstream only 30 years ago when David Spiegel, Director of the Psychosocial Research Laboratory at Stanford University, found that women with breast cancer who participated in group mindfulness therapy had less pain, improved quality of life, and even lived longer than women who received traditional medical care alone.
Since then, numerous scientific studies have examined the link between our emotional and physical wellbeing, and time and time again, we are directed to this close connection between mind and body.
How Thoughts and Emotions Affect Health
When we’re stressed, our body releases two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. Known as the stress hormones, they’re supposed to give us a short-term energy boost (better known as an adrenaline rush) so we can get out of dangerous situations quickly.
However, you can still feel stressed even if there’s no “danger” to escape. Releasing these hormones too frequently can have negative long-term effects on the body, including:
- Weakened immune response
- Digestive problems
- Healing more slowly
While the connection between stress and health is easy to understand, it’s harder to imagine that the way we think and what we believe can affect our health, too.
Negative thinking patterns—assuming the worst, jumping to conclusions, and self-criticism—can make it more difficult to deal with health problems. For example, a patient diagnosed with prediabetes may think “Everyone in my family has diabetes, so there’s nothing I can do to prevent it”, even after being told by their doctor that prediabetes is reversible with diet and exercise.
This negative inner voice can have serious health consequences, and those types of thought patterns are difficult to break. That’s where mind-body therapies come in to help.
Mind-body therapies are healing techniques that promote relaxation and encourage mindfulness. These therapies use the body to affect the mind, and vice versa. Some common mind-body therapies include:
- Art Therapy
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Group Therapy
- Guided Imagery
- Music Therapy
- Tai Chi
A holistic doctor can help you decide what combination of mind-body therapies are best for you and your lifestyle.
For example, if you struggle with negative thought patterns, cognitive behavioral therapy can help you reframe your thinking and give you a more positive outlook. If you’re struggling with stress, a combination of yoga and meditation can help you stay calm.
The Role of the Mind in Disease Prevention
Preventing chronic disease requires lifestyle changes, like eating healthier, exercising regularly, and adopting better sleeping habits. However, our ability to implement these changes is driven by our attitudes, actions, and behaviors, which in turn are controlled by our mind.
People who suffer from diseases like asthma, COPD, diabetes, and high cholesterol, often know what lifestyle changes to adopt, but may not want to make the change.
Wellness is as much of a mental battle as it is a physical process. The APA’s 2011 Stress in America survey found that 27% of Americans said that a lack of willpower was preventing them from making the lifestyle changes they wanted to make.
The mind influences our desire to do the right thing for our bodies. Our thought patterns, fears, worries, and anxieties can take us away from the path of wellness.
“I see this as an important connection in our everyday life towards wellness,” Dr. Menezes says. “Each individual will approach the path to wellness a bit differently, but it starts with getting in touch with your own mind and body in a kind and meaningful way.”
Learn More About Holistic Medicine and the Mind-Body Connection
While we still have a lot to learn about the mind-body connection, there’s no doubt that taking care of our mental health is good for our physical health as well. But the mind-body connection isn’t just about how the mind affects the body—it’s also about how the body affects the mind. Making healthy lifestyle choices is an important part of maintaining the balance between mind and body.
If you’re interested in learning more about the mind-body connection, a board-certified holistic medicine practitioner can help. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Lakshmi Menezes in Lutz or Wesley Chapel, FL, today!
Dr. Menezes is also accepting telemedicine appointments, which can be made here.
Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Talk with your doctor about your health concerns and before starting or stopping medications or therapies.