We all know about the importance of exercise, and many of us maintain a healthy body through walking, jogging, practicing yoga, or going to the gym. We also know that talking to a trained therapist can help us better understand our emotions, develop new tools, and forge new insights to meet life’s challenges.
But rather than treating our mental health and physical health as two separate entities, it’s essential that we connect our physical and mental health, understand how they influence each other, and learn how to optimize both to live healthier lives.
Therapists at our offices in Wilbraham, Amherst, Franklin, and West Springfield understand that our physical and mental health are deeply intertwined, and engagement of both is a beneficial way to live more satisfying lives. If you find yourself stuck in negative thought patterns, disconnected from the present moment, struggling to relax, or if you’re curious about integrating mind-body practices into your routine, please give us a call at (413) 343-4357 to schedule an appointment with one of our therapists, or request an appointment online.
What is the mind-body connection?
The mind-body connection is the intrinsic link between our mental, and physical health.
What we think, how we feel, and what beliefs we adhere to can negatively or positively affect our biological functioning, which in turn affects our physical health. At the same time, how much we move, what we eat, and how well we rest can negatively or positively affect our mental health.
If you’ve ever been so worried about completing a deadline that your stomach starts to ache, or so heartbroken that you feel physically weak, then you’ve experienced your thoughts and feelings manifesting in your body.
We can improve our mind-body connection through practicing meditation, yoga, deep breathing, guided imagery, and other relaxation techniques. These practices help increase our awareness of our body’s biological processing, such as heart rate and breathing patterns, which helps us tune into our emotions, and regulate our physical and psychological reactivity.
What is the mind-body disconnection?
While designed to work together to improve our overall health, our mind and body can also work against each other.
When we’re experiencing stress, our body releases two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. If our mind-body connection is working properly, these two hormones will give us a short burst of energy (called adrenaline) so that we can respond to a challenging situation. Like when our hands start to shake and our voice begins to tremble before giving a big presentation: this is our body’s way of responding to the situation, and the symptoms will likely disappear before we finish presenting.
But if we’re constantly overthinking, worrying, and talking negatively about ourselves, then we can develop lasting physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches, or muscle tightness. If we’re constantly overworking ourselves with heavy manual work, physical exhaustion, or injury, we can find ourselves emotionally drained, stressed out, and irritable.
The following signs indicate that our body-mind connection is out of alignment:
- Feeling tired or angry
- Feeling anxious or sad
- Feeling depressed
- Feeling unmotivated
- Feeling physically sore without any physical reason
- Disrupted sleep patterns
- Developing high blood pressure when upset
Studies have shown that mind-body connection techniques can help us:
- Breath more slowly
- Reduce pain
- Improve our coping skills
- Improve our brain functioning
- Lower our blood pressure and heart rate
- Help us relax
- Relieve symptoms in people with heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), depression, and other mental health disorders
Mind-body connection techniques:
Practicing yoga, focusing on our breath, meditating, practicing mindfulness, walking in nature, experimenting with guided-imagery, and consuming nutritious foods are all ways to build a stronger mind-body connection. The following are just a few of the many techniques that can help you get started:
Mindfulness is defined by non-evaluative and sustained awareness of our mental perceptions, physical sensations, thoughts, and imagery. For those of us prone to depression, anxiety, and stress-related conditions, mindfulness can help us disconnect from our worries and thoughts, and redirect our focus onto the present moment. Mindfulness helps strengthen our internal intelligence, like recognizing when we feel anxious in our body, and relaxing our mind to respond to the anxious feeling.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is one mindfulness-based technique which redirects our attention away from our thoughts, and onto the external world. When we can disrupt our negative thought patterns and break the negative feedback loop, we can slow our heart rate, calm our breath, relax our whole body, and release more positive emotions.
The mindful movement and controlled breathing techniques practiced in yoga activates our relaxation response, via the vagus nerve: relaxing our body and reducing our physical stress.
One study from Harvard Health cites that yoga can lead to significant improvements with our cardiovascular health: lowering blood pressure, improving sleep, and preventing artery-damaging inflammation. Over time, the relaxing and meditative aspects of yoga can improve our emotional resilience: helping us stay calm during stressful situations.
Following a yoga practice and experiencing the physical and mental improvements also encourages us to stay healthy by eating nutritious foods and exercising regularly.
Guided imagery, or visualization, is a unique mind-body connection practice that involves the intentional activation of each of our senses, and the engagement of our whole body. It shows us that what happens in our mind impacts our body. When we visualize a situation, like giving an important speech, or going to our “happy place” we use the power of our mind to activate physical sensations in our body.
If you’re experimenting with guided imagery on your own, you can listen to a calming recording, find a script that resonates with you, and record it for yourself to listen to. You can also silently take yourself through the process by using an image that you already know. Say you’re working with an image of a waterfall, and the sound of rain: you start to imagine a drop of dew gently falling onto your cheek. Now that the image has been constructed and your senses are activated, you can begin to intentionally tap into your emotions.
Countless studies remind us that what we eat impacts our physical and mental health. Good nutrition and a healthy diet has the power to promote brain health and function, improve gastroenterological function, and prevent or reverse mental health challenges and life-threatening illnesses. To boost our mental health, we should avoid processed foods, high in added sugars and refined carbohydrates, and opt for nutrient dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, complex carbohydrates, and whole grains.
Researchers have proven to us that our guts and brain, physically linked via the vagus nerve, are in constant communication with each other. The gut can influence emotional behavior in the brain, while the brain can alter the type of bacteria living in the gut. It’s said that 95% of the body’s supply of serotonin, a mood stabilizer, is produced by gut bacteria. If we can replace high-fat, high-sugar, high-caloric foods with nutrient dense foods, we can keep a healthier gut and mind.
Therapy for mind-body connection:
There are many evidence-based therapy modalities that recognize the mind-body connection, and together, you and your therapist can discuss which practice is right for you. From yoga and tai chi, to meditation and deep breathing, your therapist will help you understand how moving your body (or experiencing your body) connects with your state of mind.
If you’re looking to improve your mind-body connection through intentional practices, please reach out to schedule an appointment with one of our trained therapists today!