You wake up aching in the morning after not having had a good night’s sleep. As you get out of bed your back hurts and your joints feel stiff. You start your day and find that you are not as productive as you would like to be because you are so fatigued. You have a work meeting in the afternoon and you feel a surge of anxiety as your heart beats rapidly in your chest and your stomach feels upset. Your muscles tense up and beads of sweat start to pour down your face. The surge of anxiety eventually quells, but a migraine sets in. Your headaches for the rest of the day. All you want to do is go home and take a nap. You eventually get home and go to bed early because you are exhausted. This day is on repeat in your life and you don’t know why. If you are experiencing unexplained physical symptoms, they could be related to your mental health through the mind-body connection.
What is the Mind-Body Connection?
The mind-body connection is the link between how we think, feel, and behave and physical health. The mind and body are often thought of as being separate parts that do not interact, but they are in fact intricately connected. The mind-body connection shows us that the mind (emotions and attitudes) affects the body, and the body affects the mind. What you think affects how you feel, and how you feel affects how you think.
Emotional distress can cause negative effects on the body. It is common for people with mental illness and mental stressors to experience physical symptoms. Anxiety can cause stomach pains, diarrhea, and migraines. Depression can cause chronic fatigue, changes in appetite, and joint stiffness. “Brain fog” may also occur making it difficult to remember things and concentrate.
Scientific research has confirmed that attitudes and emotions affect the physical body. Hormones and neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers that send signals from the brain to the body) associated with emotion can have effects on the body. This is most evidenced by the connection between emotional stress and poor physical health.
The Body’s Stress Response
Stress is a common experience for many. When stress occurs, the brain detects a perceived threat which causes the acute stress response known as “fight-or-flight” to be activated. In reaction to a perceived threat, the fight-or-flight response biologically prepares the body to either fight or flee by releasing a surge of energy throughout the body. Hormones, such as cortisol and testosterone, and neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, are released. Certain bodily processes slow while others speed up to prepare the body to fight or flee. Digestion slows and peripheral vision is lost. The heart accelerates and blood pressure increases as it pumps blood to muscles that tense up in order to provide the body with more speed and strength. These biological responses were necessary and helpful when these evolutionary processes developed, but they can be harmful in today’s society.
“Fight-or-Flight” When There Are No More Tigers
The fight-or-flight response was needed as a survival tool when early humans had to quickly react to threats of large animals, such as tigers. The release of cortisol- commonly referred to as the “stress hormone"- was essential as it acted as the body’s natural alarm system that prepared the human body to fight for its life. Cortisol levels would come down after the threat was gone and bodily functions would return to normal. In this scenario, cortisol was advantageous for the health of humans facing life or death threats.
Fast forward to today where we no longer face threats like fighting off tigers for survival, but where we encounter constant everyday stressors that keep our fight-or-flight alarm system constantly activated. Contemporary stressors that occur in the busy everyday lives of Americans, such as paying bills and waiting in traffic, activate the fight-or-flight response releasing cortisol on a constant basis. As a consequence, our minds have become emotionally stressed and anxious, and our bodies are suffering the negative effects of too much cortisol.
The Impact of Stress on Physical and Mental Health
Chronic activation of the fight-or-flight survival mechanism in our bodies is causing poor physical health for many. Cortisol is important for various bodily functions, but it becomes harmful when there is an excess of cortisol in the body. Excess cortisol is linked to heart disease, diabetes, immune system suppression, breakdown of bone and muscle, fatigue, sleep issues, and digestive issues. Excess cortisol also affects mental health. People with depression have been shown to have higher amounts of cortisol in their bloodstream. High cortisol is also associated with lower life expectancy.
So What Can You Do?
Fortunately, there are things you can do to manage your mental and emotional stress that can negatively impact health. The body stops producing cortisol when it is relaxed and no longer in a fight-or-flight state. Once cortisol stops being released, the body can return to a state of ease and calm.
Adding relaxation techniques, living a health-promoting lifestyle, and harnessing the mind-body connection through therapeutic modalities can improve both mental and physical health. Developing and nurturing a harmonious connection between mind and body is the key to ensuring optimal overall health.
Eat A Healthy Diet
As Hippocrates famously said, “let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.” The food that we put into our bodies can either promote or harm health. Food is the fuel that keeps our brains and bodies functioning well. Without proper fuel, our systems shut down and go haywire. Fuel for the brain and body comes from complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, lean proteins, and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Certain foods, such as salmon, can also increase the production of “happy chemical” neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine that create feelings of wellbeing.
Move Your Body
Physical activity can help regulate cortisol and other hormones that can be damaging to your body. The recommendation to reduce stress is to exercise for 30 minutes per day. Aerobic exercise in particular has been proven to reduce Cortisol levels.
Try Deep Breathing
Deep breathing has been shown to lower heart rate and blood pressure, calm nerves, and relax muscle tension. Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as “belly breathing”, can be used for pain management, stress and anxiety relief, and improved attention.
Mindfulness is the state of being fully present in the moment where you are intensely aware of what you are sensing and feeling. Mindfulness improves physical health by lowering blood pressure, reducing chronic pain, improving digestion, and improving cardiovascular health. Mindfulness improves mental health by significantly reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. It also improves emotional regulation and attention.
Try Mind-Body Therapies
Mind-body therapies are part of a group of non-invasive healing techniques that enhance the integration of mind and body to result in improved wellbeing. In other words, they use the mind-body connection to mitigate physical and mental symptoms, increase relaxation, and improve overall health. Some mind-body therapies include:
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
Adding any of these elements into your life will help you feel somewhat better, but using a combination of them will provide even greater wellbeing.
Karissa Trombley is a student intern at Cypress Wellness Center working on her Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Troy University. She has experience working with diverse clientele and issues with relationships, codependency, 12 Step recovery, depression, anxiety, trauma, inner child healing, and chronic illness management. She is well-versed in cognitive reframing, mindfulness techniques, and helping others overcome shame through self-compassion.