The relationship between our thoughts, emotions and physical state
Can the way we think and feel affect our health? Do our bodies and minds function independently of each other or are they parts of an interconnected system? Curiously, the whole question about the mind-body connection exists only in our Western civilization. In Eastern healing traditions, there is no separation between mind and body. How did it happen that we in the West view it so differently?
The Body/Mind Split
For hundreds of years, Western scientists have treated mind and body as separate entities. It began in the seventeenth century with Decartes who is considered the founding father of modern medicine. Under the powerful influence of the Catholic Church, he agreed to keep the soul out of medicine and limit its scope to the physical body. As a result, Western medicine developed a fundamental assumption that the body is simply a machine, mechanical in nature, affected only by external stimuli such as bacteria and viruses.
Yet our own language betrays this division of body and mind. We say things like: she’s “worried sick”, he’s “burning with anger”, it’s “eating away” at him, I’m “choked up” with sadness, and so on.
Research into the mind-body connection has shown without a doubt that our thoughts and attitudes directly affect our emotions and physical state. In turn, our physical state influences how we feel.
A growing body of scientific research is now challenging the assumption in medicine that our bodies and minds are separate. Body-mind medicine, often called psychoneuroimmunology, has made some startling discoveries. Neuroscientists, for example, have discovered that the mind and immune system talk to each other.
One researcher, Candice Pert, discovered and measured what she calls the “molecules of emotion”. These molecules, called peptides, carry information not only about the nervous system and the body’s physical functions but also information about the emotions. What is most startling is that originally these emotion molecules were believed to exist only in the brain but have also been found throughout the entire body.
A different perspective
Traditional healing systems, particularly from China and India, dating back thousands of years, make no distinction between the mind and body. For example, in Traditional Chinese acupuncture, the liver function is associated with depression, anger and hypertension. One does not cause the other but rather they are part of one landscape, like a forest having both trees and animals. We can’t say that trees created animals or vice versa. They are all part of an interdependent dynamic system.
As Dr. Pert puts it: “Mind doesn’t dominate body, it becomes body – body and mind are one.” If this sounds rather mystical, keep in mind that this statement comes from a scientist originally trained in the Western scientific paradigm.
Ancient Healing Approaches
It’s interesting that shamanism, the indigenous approach to healing, is remarkably similar in many different cultures around the world. It’s as if indigenous people came to the same conclusions about the fundamental human experience and what is helpful. In all shamanic approaches there are ways of quieting the mind and going inward. Mind-body research supports what these cultures have long known; that techniques such as meditation and relaxation training improve emotional well-being and physical health.
The Role of Emotions in Disease
In reality, it’s too simplistic to say that our emotional stress or our thoughts cause disease. Rachel Naomi Remen, a physician and director at Commonweal, a cancer help program in California, says: “I find the notion of ‘positive’ emotion a disturbing one and perhaps even dangerous. It can degenerate into self-tyranny and lead the individual into some kind of mind control. All emotions serve a purpose and are potentially life-affirming.”
The popular notion that happiness is good for us while sadness is bad has no scientific basis. According to research, it is the feelings we don’t feel or express that can be most detrimental to our health. One example is a thirty-year study of a group of healthy young men. They were initially tested for psychological style and emotional health and divided into two groups. One group scored high on emotional health and the other scored low. In middle age, the health differences were striking. The emotionally healthy group, those that dealt with life stresses in a mature, adaptive way had only 3 percent chronic illness. In the less emotionally mature group, those who coped by denying, repressing or intellectualizing emotions, 38 percent were either dead or chronically ill.
Other studies have shown that people who are prone to melancholy and depression have lower immune strength than those with a more positive disposition. So although repressing emotions is unhealthy, experiencing prolonged periods of stressful feelings such as anger or anxiety can lower immune function. A typical example is the type A personality prone to heart disease. Perhaps it is not so much experiencing the emotions themselves but how we deal with them that determines whether they are life-affirming or not.
A number of self-help approaches have advocated that we need only change our thoughts or beliefs to transform our lives. This overlooks the fact that we also have an unconscious aspect of ourselves. We can’t change what we don’t know exists. So the first step is awareness. This takes time and perseverance because our unconscious is in the realm of automatic responses and can be elusive.
When we feel happy, sad, angry or stressed out, there are measurable effects in the brain and various physiological responses such as heart rate. Knowing this, we can employ mind-body techniques such as meditation, to influence our emotions and physical state in a positive way.
What are mind-body techniques?
Mind-body techniques are simple guided exercises that help people deal more effectively with the stresses and challenges of life. Techniques such as meditation and conscious relaxation can enhance our well-being and increase our ability to recognize inner signals about what we truly need.
Conscious relaxation is a rather underrated yet very powerful healing practice. People often ask, “Why do I need to relax? Isn’t that what sleep is for?” Many people, when feeling stressed in their life, actually don’t relax during sleep. You may have experienced this when you wake up in a contracted position or wake up tired as if you never slept.
Lie down on your back in a comfortable position, with a cushion under your head and one under your knees or with your lower legs on the seat of a chair as shown. If you have a tendency to fall asleep during this exercise, then either sit comfortably in a chair or try lying down on the floor with your legs up the wall. (Your hips need to be right up against the wall.)
Begin by taking a few gentle deeper breaths, inviting your body to relax as you exhale. Then let your breathing return to normal. Now, starting with your right arm, focus your attention on relaxing your right arm as much as possible without strain or effort. Simply ‘invite’ relaxation to occur, knowing that your body already knows how to relax.
Spend a few moments on each limb, then the back, chest, pelvis and abdomen. Try to practice this 5 – 10 minutes per day.
If you find your mind wanders too much, you might want to try a guided recording. Go to Meditation CD where you can purchase just the single track “Conscious relaxation” or “Lying-down-with-legs-up” meditation.