The body matters too: Mind-body connection
The mind-body connection is the communication between our thoughts and our feelings. While we may think of our feelings as something that exists in our mind, the word ‘feeling’ implies a physical sensation. Our feelings are a bodily experience.
Emotions are messengers and our body provides us with signals. It is not just our thoughts or internal chatter at play when we are feeling anxious, stressed or depressed. Our body is also trying to tell us something and we need to learn to listen, as this can be vital to help us navigate through difficult emotions and feelings.
According to neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett “an emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going around you in the world.” Using this definition, our body is communicating through the expression of emotions within our body and it is our brain which is interpreting that information as feelings.
Another way of defining this is that signals within the body can be thought of as indicators or markers for feelings. For example, sometimes we may not be fully aware if we are feeling unsafe, but our body may give us a clear warning sign through expressions in our bodies, such as tension in our muscles, sweaty palms or shortness of breath and a faster heartbeat.
One example of the body signalling information to us is that sensation most of us can probably relate to, which is that ’butterflies’ feeling in our stomach. Our stomach may churn just before we sit an exam, our appetite may increase or decrease or we may feel a bit nauseous just before we set off for a job interview or as we head out for a first date. It’s a phrase that is used to explain a bodily experience that signals we may be nervous about something.
“I have a frog in my throat” is another bodily phrase that is used to explain a feeling in our body. It’s expressed when we find ourselves holding back strong feelings at times of high-induced stress. Such expressions can be explained through vast amounts of research that illustrate how our mind and body are connected and how emotions can manifest within our bodies.
How are our mind and body connected?
All of our bodies have a command centre, which is known as the nervous system. It is primarily responsible for collecting and processing sensory information. The nervous system consists of the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system.
The central nervous system (CNS) is made up of the brain and spinal cord. It takes in information through our senses, processes information and triggers reactions.
The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is made up of nerves that branch off from the spinal cord to reach every part of our body. It plays a key role in relaying sensory information to the CNS, to control bodily functions, movement and digestion.
Gut-brain axis and the vagus nerve
It is within this PNS where our ‘second brain’ sits. It has become more and more apparent that our gut is an important part of our body’s nervous system and it is being classed as our ‘second brain’ or our ‘gut brain.’ This second brain within our gut is formally called the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS has a similar network of nerves, neurons and neurotransmitters as our CNS. This ‘second brain’ is in communication with the brain in our head. The gut-brain axis runs from our brain all the way down to our abdomen.
This complex network is bidirectional, meaning that not only can it send signals from our brain to our body but it can also send signals through our body to our brain. Research suggests that more than 80% of our body signals go from our body to our brain, some research indicates an even higher percentile.
One of the biggest nerves that connects our gut and brain within the gut-brain axis is the vagus nerve. ‘Vagus’ is the Latin word for wandering. Your vagal nerves take a long, winding course through your body. Also known as the vagal nerves, these are the main nerves of our parasympathetic nervous system. This system controls specific body functions such as your digestion, heart rate and immune system. These functions are involuntary, meaning you can’t consciously control them.
How does the mind-body connection play out
So when we experience emotions, both our brain and body are firing off signals to us. Depending on the emotion, what we are experiencing will be dependent on how the body and brain interpret that emotion. When we are feeling scared or anxious, a part of our brain can pick up on what it deems to be a stressful stimulus and will activate survival responses such as fight, flight or freeze. It may signal to the body an alert message and our body may then prepare and go into survival mode where we may run away from danger, freeze up or try to fight it.
Our body can also signal such messages through bodily manifestations of ‘butterflies’ or ‘frog in our throat’ as a means to let us know or to let our brain know to hit the survival responses. These survival responses sit under the umbrella of the sympathetic nervous system whereas the parasympathetic nervous system sits under the umbrella of ‘relax and digest’ and is active when we are feeling calm.
How can counselling and psychotherapy help?
So you might be wondering how this may be of any importance within talking therapies. Well for a long time within the counselling practices, we have used forms such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help those suffering from anxiety, compulsive thoughts and behaviours by challenging thoughts and trying to re-wire new ways of thinking. And this absolutely works for many of us. However, it can be just as important, and some may say even more so, to not only challenge and change our thoughts but actually to work on our bodies to help relieve anxiety, tension and stress.
Not only may we need to tell our mind how to feel safe again, but we need to let our body know too. The body cannot function properly if we are in a state of panic. If we are in a constant state of high stress, our sympathetic nervous system will be working on overdrive, constantly in a survival state, releasing adrenaline and flooding our bodies with too much cortisol. We may struggle to sleep, our body may not be able to repair and rejuvenate, and our digestive system can also be impaired, along with many other bodily functions, as they can shut down if the sympathetic nervous system is overworking. We therefore need to find ways to help the sympathetic nervous system to be relieved and to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
The opposite can also happen. For instance, when we need a healthy level of stress to help motivate us to achieve our goals, such as to prepare for a job interview, our sympathetic nervous system may get switched off. This could be a coping strategy to prevent us from feeling overwhelmed, and it is then our parasympathetic nervous system may go into an overactive state. We may experience this as a lack of energy, lethargy, lack of normal motivation, inflammation, bowel discomfort and low mood or even depression.
Some of us can even feel quite disconnected from our bodies; this too can be a coping strategy, to flee from being connected to difficult feelings and to stop ourselves from having to experience them.
Counselling and psychotherapy can help you connect to your body in a safe way and help regulate your emotions, whereby both the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems can work in balance. Through sessions with a practitioner who works with mind-body connection, helpful tools can be implemented. Some tools and techniques may support you to be more attuned to your body, to practice healthy emotional regulation and to calm your survival responses if they are in overdrive.
If this is something that’s of interest, and you would like to explore your mind-body connection in more detail, please feel free to get in touch.