The mind-body connection
"The mind and body are like parallel universes. Anything that happens in the mental universe must leave tracks in the physical one." - Deepak Chopra
It’s very true that what happens mentally and emotionally influences us physically and vice versa.
Physical manifestations of our mental state or our emotions may simply tell us we are alive. For instance, we may experience butterflies in our stomach before doing a presentation or we may feel the physical effects of adrenaline coursing through our body when we jump off a diving board or respond to an emergency.
The impact of mental health on physical health
Sometimes, however, the impact of our mental or emotional well-being on our body can be highly distressing, as anyone who has experienced panic attacks will know. Symptoms of panic attacks may include breathlessness, nausea, shivering or shaking and heart palpitations. Even with the absence of panic attacks anxiety can cause a host of physical problems including headaches, muscle aches and digestion issues. Stress and anxiety can be a key cause of conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and can exacerbate other chronic conditions including asthma and fibromyalgia.
If trauma is the root of our physical distress, it is because the nervous system may be in a perpetual state of arousal. Dr Peter Levine PhD, founder and pioneer of Somatic Experiencing tells us:
"The organism must find a way out of the cycle created by the perception of danger and the accompanying arousal in order to regain its equilibrium. Failure to do so leads to pathology and debilitation as the organism compensates for its aroused state through the manifestations that are now recognised as the symptoms of trauma."
It is hardly surprising that if our nervous system goes into overdrive, we experience negative and intrusive consequences of this. Unfortunately, this can send us into a spiral of pain, discomfort, and mental ill-health.
The impact of physical health on mental health
Similarly, if we experience an illness or an injury this can cause or exacerbate mental and emotional health issues. Illness and debilitation can affect our confidence levels and cause us to worry about the future. If we are unable to do the things that we did before such as exercise or socialising this can also impact our mental health and if we are incapacitated for an extended amount of time our well-being can spiral downwards.
Sometimes it isn’t clear when our mental health is starting to impact our physical health or vice versa. We may not be able to pinpoint anything that happened such as a stressful period at work, a bereavement, trauma or illness that has sent our body-mind equilibrium off-kilter. It may be the result of a number of small issues that have built up over time such as some minor illnesses and everyday worries. When this happens it may be that we need to take better care of ourselves by taking some time out of our busy schedule or having a more robust self-care regime.
Something else that may happen is that we realise we haven’t been living as a ‘whole’ person for quite some time. This may sound like an odd thing to say but we aren’t always mindful of living in our body as well as our mind. We might be very conscious of what is going on in our head and not be conscious of what our body is trying to tell us. This may be fine for a while but eventually, it can start to cause issues. For instance, we may have a feeling of unfulfillment or emptiness that we just can’t work out.
Something else that can happen is that we bury past difficulties or trauma, which again, may be acceptable for a limited period but isn’t ultimately sustainable. We may have buried it for a time because we couldn’t cope with it when it first happened. The trauma may then resurface, either when we are better able to cope with it or simply when our body can no longer bury it for us. The trauma might manifest in purely physical symptoms, purely mental manifestations, or a mixture of both. We might find ourselves struggling with digestive issues or we may experience depression or post traumatic stress disorder (labels such as depression or PTSD are not always essential but can be helpful in some cases).
How to address the mind-body connection
There are some instances where it is essential to get professional help as the symptoms of PTSD, for instance, can be extremely difficult to handle alone. In any of the above scenarios, it can be helpful to reach out for some talking therapy. It could be very helpful to find a therapist who focuses on the mind-body connection or who specialises in somatic therapy. Depending on your situation there are other ways to increase the connection and equilibrium between body and mind. These include but are not restricted to:
Regularly checking in with our body
This allows us to check in on how we are feeling and if our body is trying to tell us anything. For instance, a lot of people feel anxiety or unease in their chest or stomach. Before it becomes too much of an issue it can be advantageous to take early action by using some relaxation techniques or talking to a friend about things that might be bothering you.
Immersing ourselves in a movement practice
Such as yoga, pilates or dance. It is important to really feel the movements and not just be on autopilot.
Make a conscious effort to live in your senses and not in your head
For instance, if you go out for a walk explore the things that you can see, hear, smell and touch. Look at flowers or trees in detail or touch tree barks or leaves as you pass them. Identify the different things that you can smell such as rain or grass. If you have been experiencing some anxiety or stress coming to your senses can help relieve your symptoms. It may be that you have a preferred sense that offers your faster relief. For instance, you may be more quickly soothed by some classical music or a very soft blanket.
Revisit childhood activities
It may be the case that you used to be in touch with your body when you were a child but not so much now. Think of the things that you used to like doing such as dancing or playing football. Perhaps revisiting these activities may help you to have a better mind-body connection.
Become more aware of how you treat your body
Simply being more aware of how we are treating our bodies and what we are consuming can be very helpful. This might help us to notice, for instance, that our body doesn’t digest dairy as readily as it used to (which in turn could also influence our mental well-being) or we may discover that we have a vitamin deficiency (which can also affect our mood).
Alternatively, we may realise we need to do more exercise or have less sleep. It might also be that we are consuming too much caffeine or sugar which may have an impact on how well we function. If we pay attention, we can also notice the things that have a positive effect on us such as the lunchtime walk or the talk with a friend and we may resolve to do more of those things.
Grounding ourselves and checking in with our breathing can be helpful in getting in touch with our body and improving the equilibrium between body and mind. Sitting comfortably with your feet on the floor, closing your eyes and breathing slowly in and out through the nose can be a very useful regular practice and can also help in times of high stress.
Taking this further, meditation is something that is helpful for many people and there are various apps available such as Calm or Headspace to help with this. If you are new to meditation or fear that your busy mind will take over, try a meditation that is more instructional such as a body scan.
When we are concerned about our mental health, we may not be so aware of our physical health or vice versa. Optimum well-being comes from considering both simultaneously.