Mind the gap: the importance of the mind/body connection in physical and mental health
One of the oldest debates in psychology is whether the mind and body are two separate entities or do they impact on each other. The 17th century french philosopher Rene Descartes proposed the idea of 'dualism' and that the mind and body are separate entities, but interact. Descrates suggested that the pineal gland in the brain was the actual location of where mind and body interact with each other.
Modern day psychology still considers and researches the interaction between mind and body. It looks at the impact that states of mind, patterns of thought and emotional states have upon our physical body. With the help of modern technology such as MRI and CT scans, researchers can now see which parts of the brain link with various parts of the body and the interaction that occurs in the body when the brain is in a specific state. The mind/body connection considers how our mental health impacts on our physical health and the dual relationship that occurs.
What does mental health mean and why is it important to view this as just as important as our physical health? For many, minding their physical health may seem like common-sense such as watching your diet, alcohol intake, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and not smoking. The tangible benefits of such behaviors are well documented and many people unquestionably sign up to those. This attitude can stand in stark contrast to our attitude toward mental health and why it's just as important to look after that in order to stay physically healthy. For some, the mind and body are disconnected and there is no connection between having good mental health and having good physical health. But is this the case?
Psychoneuroimmunology is a field of study in psychology that looks at the specific interaction between the immune and nervous system and their relationship with mental processes and physical health.The term psychoneuroimmunology was coined by Robert Ader, a researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, New York. In the 1970s, Ader and other researchers opened up new understandings of how experiences such as stress and anxiety can affect a person's immune system and thus their physical health. Psychoneuroimmunology provides a scientific framework for researchers to look at the mind / body link and reinforce the interconnectedness of both.
One such area that is well researched in psychoneuroimmunology is the link between states of stress and the impact that this has on the immune system and our physical health. Chronic stress releases cortisol which plays a major function in the body’s response to stress. Cortisol helps us deal with stress by shutting down unnecessary functions, such as the immune system, in order to allow the body to direct all energies toward dealing with the stress at hand. These functions of cortisol are intended to be temporary, just long enough to deal with the offending stressor, the body calms down and cortisol release ceases.
Prolonged, chronic stress facilitates too much cortisol being produced and being present in the body. If it is present in the blood for prolonged periods, the body develops a resistance to cortisol and does not respond to it properly. Lymphocytes are a major component of the immune system and they kill invading organisms that would cause disease and they identify harmful substances and help defend against them. Cortisol suppresses lymphocytes production and activity. With a lowered amount of lymphocytes, the body is vulnerable and exposed to increased risk of infection and disease.
Another area that has been recently researched is the link between anxiety in men and cancer. The research presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology's Congress in Vienna in 2016, emerges from the largest study ever to explore a link between anxiety and cancer. It tracked 15,938 Britons over 40 for 15 years. Even after researchers took account of factors that boost the risk of cancer, including age, alcohol consumption, smoking and chronic diseases, men with a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder were 2.15 times as likely to die of cancer than were those with no such diagnosis. This is sobering reading.
In conclusion, the mind/body link is a very important one that should not be overlooked. It's important to mind this gap and not to view the mind and body as independent of each other. Being aware of the impact that out mental health has on our physical health, will help us to be mindful of looking after both and not prioritising one over the other. Having such an attitude will ensure that we give ourselves the best chance to stay healthy in a holistic way and ensure that there are no gaps in our focus on our personal health.
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About Mark Rackley
I'm a chartered psychologist practicing in Putney, South West London.
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Dr Mark Rackley.