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What the Research Actually Says About the Mind-Body Connection
Mental health is becoming a hot topic in the fitness community. While there is certainly truth to the mind-body connection, there is also a lot of misinterpretation. Peace, love, and happiness won't solve all of your physical problems, but can they help? We dove into the evidence behind the connection and here's what we found.
What is the mind-body connection?
The mind-body connection is the idea that a person's thoughts, feelings, and mental state can impact their physical health and functionality.
There is a lot of controversy over the validity of the mind-body connection. This is primarily due to its associations with new-age spirituality. Some of the claims made by some practitioners can be a bit far-fetched, but the foundation of these claims is based on science.
The relationship between the body and mind is something that the scientific community is continually exploring. However, it has recently garnered some evidentiary support to complement decades of anecdotal testimonies.
scientific support of the mind-body connection
Stress, depression, and anxiety are all negative facets of mental health. The National Institute of Mental Health published an article regarding stress that noted three things:
- Stress affects everyone in different capacities.
- Long-term stress is harmful to physical and mental health.
- There are ways to manage and reduce stress including, but not limited to, mindfulness and meditation.
A study published by the Experimental and Clinical Science Journal lists the traumatic effects of stress on the body. They are as follows.
Stress can cause Brain Function Complications
The hypothesis that stress can cause functional changes to the central nervous system was accepted in 1968 following studies that examined the effects of cortisol - a stress hormone - on glucocorticosteroid receptors. In addition, some studies have shown that stress can cause structural changes in different parts of the brain. Chronic stress can even lead to the atrophy of brain mass and decreased brain weight.
Stress can cause memory complications
Memory relies heavily on an area of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus has the most concentrated density of receptors, thus it has the highest level of response to stress. High concentrations of stress hormones can cause declarative memory disorders. Animal studies have shown that stress can cause irreversible reductions in spatial memory as a result of degradation in the hippocampus.
Stress can cause cognition and learning deficits
Cognition is the reception and perception of perceived stimuli and their interpretation. In layman's terms, it includes learning, decision making, attention, and judgement. Similar to memory, cognition is formed mainly in the hippocampus. Exposure to stress can cause psychological changes that manifest as behavioral, cognitive, and mood disorders.
Stress can irritate and harm immune system functions
Stress can affect the immune system by influencing processes in the central nervous and neuroendocrine systems. In fact, a plethora of studies over the last several decades has shown that stress mediators can pass through the blood-brain barrier and exert their effects on the immune system. Moreover, severe stress can lead to malignancy by suppressing the immune system.
Stress can compromise cardiovascular function
The relationship between stress and cardiovascular disease is well-established. It's now known that stress has a deteriorating effect on cardiovascular function. This occurs because stress causes your autonomic nervous system to activate. This in turn raises heart rate, narrows the veins, strengthens the contraction of the arteries in the spleen and kidneys, and decreases sodium excretion. All of which indirectly impacts cardiovascular activity.
Stress causes gastrointestinal complications
The presence of stress can impact appetite due to hormone receptors in the body and adversely affects GI tract function. Absorption, intestinal permeability, mucus, stomach acid secretion, and inflammation levels are all changed due to existing stress.
Stress can harm the endocrine system
Stress either activates or inhibits endocrine processes associated with the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands. As well as the thyroid, gonads, and pancreas. The improper release of hormones and the stimulation of stress hormones impact every body system, including the reproductive system.
What is mindfulness?
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, mindfulness is defined as the quality or state of being consciously aware of something. Its second definition lists it as a therapeutic technique. Understanding what it is and how it works is vital, as mindfulness is an essential tool for stress reduction.
Mindfulness and stress reduction
The practice of mindfulness includes meditation, self-observation, relaxation techniques, goal setting, and therapy. Harvard Health Publishing posted an article backed by several studies that listed relaxation techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy, and goal setting as stress reduction methods.
Thus by practicing mindfulness through various methods, we can reduce the physical manifestations of stress, depression, and anxiety.
Putting mindfulness into practice
Putting mindfulness into practice is a vital component to improving mental health and nurturing the mind-body connection. There are several methods that can be implemented into your daily routine to achieve this goal.
Meditation has been used to increase calmness, induce physical relaxation, improve psychological states, cope with mental anguish, and enhance wellness since ancient times. It is rooted in self-observation. In reaction to every situation, you consciously choose what to think and feel. No matter what happens, there are a multitude of angles to view it from. The process of meditation is about being present with your thoughts and feelings. It involves acknowledging and letting go of difficult or troubling situations in your life.
Nutrition impacts not only how we feel physically, but how we feel about ourselves. Particularly, foods containing sugar and caffeine, that are processed, and that are high in saturated fats can cause a chemical release that negatively impacts mood and increases stress. Mindful nutrition is all about looking at food as fuel rather than as a coping mechanism. To get started with proper eating habits, you can refer to these nutrition basics.
Exercise wonders for mental health, especially when focusing on self-improvement rather than self-degradation. It can improve memory, sharpen focus, enhance mood, and reduce the effects of aging. If you want to learn more, we talk in-depth about the benefits of exercise in the brain in this article.
There are many different types of journaling, each of which has benefits for mental health. Gratitude journaling is a way to change your outlook on negative situations happening in your life by reframing your mindset. Whereas shadow journaling provides prompts that offer a deeper look into your behaviors, actions, thoughts, and needs. Both types of journaling aid in reducing stress, sharpening focus, and improving yourself from the inside out.
Therapy is an important step in recovering from underlying trauma. It provides an external perspective from a trusted confidant who allows you to be vulnerable and human. This is probably the best place to start, regardless of what you've experienced in life, as it gives you a detailed glimpse into your brain and self. A therapist will be able to help you utilize all other mindfulness tools discussed above.
It should be noted that there are additional hurdles for our neurodivergent friends battling chemical imbalances that make it more difficult to navigate trauma and stress. We see you and acknowledge your struggle. Utilizing these tools can still help improve the mind-body connection, but if you find yourself at an impasse, give yourself grace and seek help.