Understanding the Mind-Body Connection and Interventions That Can Impact Your Health

Understanding the Mind-Body Connection and Interventions That Can Impact Your Health

As a second year in my doctoral program, I gained significantly more responsibility in each of my roles: student, teacher, counselor, and researcher. My mindset was to “put your head down and get through it.” As a result of ignoring the significant and compounding stress in my life, I began to lose large chunks of hair and had serious gastrointestinal (GI) problems. My short story is a great example of the mind-body connection; my mind and body were working together to force me to acknowledge and address the stress.

History of Mind-Body Separation
We can trace the origins of thought regarding the mind and body as entirely separate entities to René Descartes, a French philosopher (and mathematician and scientist). Descartes and other philosophers embraced Cartesian dualism, or the notion that our bodies are merely a biological vessel and our consciousness (or mind) exists apart from that physical body. Medicine, religion, academia, and early science was built upon this notion, attempting to find physical cures for human ailments. As a result, many physicians to this day still put more stock into organic diagnoses (those with measurable cause in the body) and largely ignore and/or brush off functional disorders (conditions with undetected causes). 

Biomedical Versus Biopsychosocial Model
This belief in mind-body dualism led to the formation of the Biomedical model in the 1800’s (Sanderson, 2018).  Proponents of this model believe that disease results from an identifiable biological abnormality and that health is defined as the absence of disease. This gave rise to development of much of modern medicine and propelled innovative treatments in order to overcome those abnormalities. Medicine and health were largely understood as being one in the same (Mehta, 2011).

However, this model fell short in being able to explain why folks who experience chronic stress had higher risk for physical conditions like diabetes or coronary heart disease. As a result, researchers developed the Biopsychosocial Model that suggests the mind and body are interrelated (bio=biological, psycho=psychological, social=relationships). This model allows for contextual factors like their personality, family, societal influences, and much more to influence both the physical and mental health of the individual (Sanderson, 2018). In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) today defines health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (World Health Organization, 1974). 

Mind-Body Connection
The act of reconnecting the mind and body had to develop within the regions where the Biomedical Model prevailed. Many Indigenous and non-Western cultures have endorsed healing practices based on the mind-body connection and holistic views of health and healing since time immemorial. 

The notion of the mind-body connection, at its core, suggests that all our health-related problems should be considered within the broader context of our life. This approach involves the holistic integration of promoting health within the mind, body, and even spirit. When we engage in behaviors that impact our mental health, we see the ripple effects of that in our physical and spiritual health as well. Practitioners who embrace the mind-body connection tend to take a preventive approach to healthcare (Lemon & Wagner, 2013). 

Mind-Body Interventions
Mind-body interventions are practices that use the body to impact the mind in some way. The wonderful thing about mind-body interventions is that anyone can do them anytime, anywhere and for the most part, nobody will even be able to tell you are doing them. These are incredibly accessible with many online resources and the positive impacts can be further strengthened when used in conjunction with talk therapy. The following are just a few examples of mind-body therapies that have been shown to be highly effective for multiple concerns.

  • Biofeedback: Biofeedback is the process of using technology in order to help people learn the ways in which their bodies react to stressful situations. People will be hooked up to various types of sensors (brain waves, heart function, breathing, etc.) that give information about the body’s stress response. While receiving this “feedback” about their bodies, the individual then engages in programming to help them learn to control that stress response. Over time, people are able to manage their stress even without the instruments (AAPB, 2018).  Biofeedback has been shown to be helpful for more than 39 conditions including anxiety, headaches, ADHD, chronic pain, constipation, depression, and hypertension just to name a few (Austad & Gendron, 2018).
  • Mindfulness: There are many types of mindfulness practices, but the overarching principle of mindfulness-based interventions is to increase awareness of the present moment without judgment. Related: Mindfulness for Anxiety - Barriers and Benefits of Practice. These are often performed in the form of formal meditations, but can also be a mindset that we bring into our daily activities. Paying attention to important things we are doing - eating lunch, talking with friends, etc. - can make us feel more in touch with our emotions and feel gratitude for our lives. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to decrease stress and increase both mindfulness and self-compassion (Huberty et al., 2019).
  • Guided Imagery: Guided imagery is a structured form of relaxation in which the individual uses their imagination to visualize various situations, often calm or peaceful settings like a beach vacation or sitting in a forest. Others have used guided imagery to imagine success in performance-based situations that cause them significant stress or anxiety. Guided imagery has been linked with reduced symptoms of pain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, nausea, vomiting, and retching; and improvements in some facets of health-related quality of life. There is strong evidence for improvements in psychological well-being in post-operative patients (Nelson et al., 2013).
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR): PMR is another relaxation technique in which an individual begins with one muscle group in their body and tenses up the muscles when they breathe in, then relaxes them when breathing out. The individual then moves through the rest of the muscle groups in the body. For example, many people start with their toes and move up to their lower legs, thighs, hips and buttocks, abs, and so on. PMR has been shown to be effective in treating the psychological components of chemotherapy treatments, which ultimately improves cancer-related outcomes (Charalambous et al., 2016). 

Evidence for Mind-Body Connection
Mind-body interventions have been shown to have significant positive effects on many health conditions including cancer, chronic pain, cardiovascular disease, insomnia, and post-surgical outcomes (among others). 

  • Cancer: Mind-body interventions are effective at treating cancer-related side effects like vomiting, pain, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. Additionally, these treatments have positive impacts on immune function and stress hormones in folks with cancer (Carlson et al., 2017).
  • Pain: An arthritis intervention that largely focused on relaxation techniques resulted in significant reductions in pain; these effects persisted an additional 4 years post-treatment and those patients experienced a 40% reduction in physician visits (Astin et al., 2003). In a mind-body physical activity program for individuals with chronic pain, mind-body interventions led to improvements in the 6-minute walk test (measures the distance covered walking on a flat surface for 6 minutes), self-reported physical functioning, emotional functioning, pain intensity, pain coping, and mindfulness. Additionally, participants themselves indicated that their pain was “much improved” by the end of the program (Greenberg et al., 2020).
  • Cardiovascular Disease: Mind-body interventions can lessen the occurrence of cardiac events, reduce cardiovascular diseases, and even lower systolic blood pressure in people engaging in cardiac rehabilitation programs (Cramer et al., 2015).
  • Insomnia: After 5 cumulative hours of mind-body interventions for insomnia, people experience significant improvements in their ability to fall asleep and reductions in the time spent awake after they fall asleep (Astin et al., 2003). Additionally, people experience improvements in sleep quality and reduction in the severity of insomnia when participating in mind-body interventions (Wang et al., 2019).
  • Surgery: When used prior to surgery as part of pre-operative care, mind-body interventions have been shown to reduce pain, amount of medication use, length of stay, and recovery time following surgery (Nelson et al., 2013). 

Mind-body interventions have promising impacts on chronic disease, but are also highly effective for improving overall life satisfaction and happiness (Pretty & Barton, 2020). Just like any other skill (playing a sport or instrument, for example), the more you practice the better you will become. I encourage you not to wait until a problem develops to begin using mind-body interventions!

While mental health problems can impact our physical health (and vice versa), it is important to recognize that the opposite is also true! Engaging in behaviors to help our mental health can improve our physical health. When I acknowledged that my hair loss and GI problems were largely due to stress, I began to prioritize my practice of these mind-body interventions. I now practice mindfulness meditation almost daily. While I am nowhere near perfect, I stopped losing hair and now manage my gastrointestinal problems much better and see the positive impacts on all facets of my health. What mind-body interventions have you implemented in your life? How have these helped you to live your best life?

Written for Fitness Blender by Haley S, PhD
Licensed Psychologist


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