Have you ever noticed that when you’re stressed, anxious or depressed, you feel knots in your stomach or you’re lethargic and your body doesn’t want to get out of bed?
Or, similarly, when your body is unwell, you may notice that it impacts your mood – you might feel more down, anxious, or just “bleh.”
This is because of the mind-body connection, which refers to the idea that our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors can influence our physical health and well-being, and vice-versa. While we often talk about our bodies and minds like they’re completely separate, extensive research in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and medicine has shown that the two are really tightly connected.
So, let’s cover the science behind the connection.
- The stress response
One of the clearest examples of the mind-body connection is the stress response. When we experience stress, whether it be from a work deadline, a difficult conversation with a loved one, or a physical injury, our body releases a cascade of hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline.
These hormones prepare us to deal with danger, either by “freezing” till the danger is gone, or by "fight or flight" – increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, so that we can either run away from or fight the danger. While this response is adaptive in the short-term, chronic stress can have a negative impact on our health.
Studies have shown that chronic stress can increase our risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, as well as impair our immune system, making us more susceptible to infections. The influence of mental perception on stress is just one of the many reasons why it’s important to understand the mind-body connection.
- The placebo effect
Another place that we can see the mind-body connection in action is through the placebo effect. Placebos are physiologically inactive substances that are often used in clinical trials and given to a control group. For example, a placebo might be a sugar pill given to one group while the other group receives an antidepressant, to assess whether the antidepressant works.
Even though placebos have no active ingredients, they can still have a positive impact on some people's health. This is because the placebo effect is not just a matter of "thinking positive thoughts." Rather, it involves complex neurobiological mechanisms that can activate our body's natural healing processes. For example, when we believe that a treatment is effective, our brain releases endorphins, which are natural painkillers. Placebos have been shown to be effective in treating a range of conditions, including chronic pain, depression, and anxiety which tells us the link between the mind and body is real.
And finally, another example of the mind-body connection can be seen in the impact of mindfulness on our physical well-being. Mindfulness is a practice that involves paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, environment, and so on, on purpose and without any judgment – noticing and being present to what’s going on in the moment you’re in.
Mindfulness has been shown to have positive effects on the physical body, by way of reducing the symptoms associated with stress, anxiety and depression.
So, while other factors impact our physical health – like genetics, environmental factors, and lifestyle choices – our thoughts and emotions can have a profound impact on our health.
By understanding the science behind the mind-body connection, we can take steps to optimize our health and well-being. This might involve practicing stress-reduction techniques, seeking social support, or incorporating mindfulness practices into our daily routines, although this list isn’t exhaustive. For personalized advice on how to nurture the mind-body connection and live a healthier life, our experts are always ready to share their knowledge.
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This article has been reviewed by Leorra Newman, PhD and Kayleigh-Ann Clegg, PhD.