In ancient Greece, three doctors would see a patient together. They were the “knife” doctor, the “herb” doctor, and the “word” doctor. The people who “invented” medicine understood there was a connection between the mind and body and practiced accordingly. Our modern-day Western counterparts (surgeons, physicians, and therapists) rarely even speak with one another.
There is increasing evidence the ancient Greeks were right: Our thoughts, feelings, and attitudes can affect our biological functioning, and what we do with our physical bodies can affect our mental state. In fact, until about 300 years ago, most systems of medicine treated the mind and body as a whole. It wasn’t until the 17th century that Western cultures began to see the body and mind as distinct entities. Researchers began revisiting the mind-body connection in the late 20th century, and since then, they have compiled an impressive amount of data that indicates our bodies and minds share a common chemical language and are constantly communicating with each other. In this article, I will introduce just four of the ways research demonstrates this connection between the mind and body.
Perhaps the most obvious of our examples is the effect of chronic stress, which we often think of as a state of mind, on physical health. Our bodies are designed to handle small doses of mental or emotional stress, and some of it is necessary for us to stay on top of our responsibilities and to remain safe in our environments. But we are not equipped to handle chronic stress without consequences.
Chronic stress can come from things like concern about a loved one’s health or well-being, living in unsafe conditions, money problems, excessive workloads, and so on. The experience of chronic stress causes an increase in heart rate, breathing to quicken, muscles to tighten, and blood pressure to rise. Most symptoms of chronic stress are physical: headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension or pain, sleep problems, chest pain, fatigue, changes in sex drive. Stress also causes an increase in the hormone cortisol, which researchers have linked to serious health issues.
One of the most extreme examples in the literature of how chronic emotional stress can affect the body is informally called “broken heart syndrome.” The experience of stress, due to a failed relationship, grief, or other significantly stressful reason, can cause a part of one’s heart to enlarge and fail to pump as well as usual. This enlargement can lead to temporary but severe heart failure. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study in which hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol released in the body due to chronic stress or grief were identified as the culprit for broken heart syndrome. Researchers found treating this kind of heart failure with traditional pharmacology would not be effective, whereas psychotherapy focusing on emotional management might help alleviate the problem.
It is important we recognize the connection between our bodies and minds if we want to feel our best. Therapists could ask people in their care to visit their doctors to check vitamin levels and screen for thyroid or GI issues if dealing with depression and fatigue. Doctors could consider chronic stress as a health hazard and encourage patients to speak with a licensed counselor when appropriate.
Another common example of how the mind can affect the body is the placebo effect. Dr. Lissa Rankin, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute and author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, reported “patients in clinical trials who received sugar pills, saline injections, or fake surgeries, but believe they might be getting the new wonder drug or miracle surgery, get better 18% to 80% of the time.” Conversely, other studies showed many medical students report developing symptoms suggestive of the illnesses they are studying. They are worried they are sick or will get sick, and their bodies comply by getting sick. Fear fills our bodies with harmful cortisol and epinephrine, while positive beliefs relax our nervous systems and allow our bodies to heal.
Now let’s switch from how the mind can affect the body’s ability to function properly to a couple of examples of how the body may affect the mind.
Gut health is an emerging field of medicine that seeks to balance healthy bacteria in the gastrointestinal system and improve digestion and nutrient absorption to increase both physical and emotional well-being. Researchers and doctors are finding new connections with the gastrointestinal tract and mental health all the time. There is a network of 100 million neurons that line the gut which is often called the “second brain.” The gut produces 95% of the serotonin, and 50% of the dopamine, found in our bodies. We have already linked these chemicals to well-being and stress management. A disruption or imbalance of these chemicals and the GI microbiota may lead to depression, while balancing the gut bacteria and improving nutrient absorption may have a positive effect on mental health.
Another way the body can influence how we think, feel, and behave is through body position, posture, gestures, and facial expressions. In a study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2010, people who sat or stood in expansive “power” poses for just one minute not only reported feeling more powerful and confident, but also had an increase in testosterone and a decrease in cortisol.
To review, the mind and body communicate in many ways, and most of them seem to have something to do with a shared chemical or hormonal language. Stress can affect health to the level of causing severe heart problems, and beliefs about our health (as illustrated by the placebo effect) can produce positive or negative results in physical well-being. We also know a healthy gut health can improve mental health, and certain postures may lower cortisol and raise testosterone, causing one to feel more powerful and confident.
It is important we recognize the connection between our bodies and minds if we want to feel our best. Therapists could ask people in their care to visit their doctors to check vitamin levels and screen for thyroid or GI issues if dealing with depression and fatigue. Doctors could consider chronic stress as a health hazard and encourage patients to speak with a licensed counselor when appropriate. All of us can do our best to pay attention to how our bodies and minds are communicating about our health and mental states and start acting on what helps us be well.
- Cuddy, A. J.C., Wilmuth, C. A., & Carney, D. R. The Benefit of Power Posing Before a High-Stakes Social Evaluation. Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 13-027, September 2012.
- Kleisiaris, C. F., Sfakianakis, C., & Papathanasiou, I. V. (2014). Health care practices in ancient Greece: The Hippocratic ideal. Journal of Medical Ethics and History of Medicine, 7, 6.
- Rankin, L. (2012). Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.
- Templin, C., Ghadri, J., Diekmann, J., et al. (2015, September 3). Clinical Features and Outcomes of Takotsubo (Stress) Cardiomyopathy. New England Journal of Medicine.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2014, October 8). What Is Broken Heart Syndrome? National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/broken-heart-syndrome
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