For centuries—if not thousands of years—many cultures around the world perceived and defined the mind and body as entirely separate entities. These notions likely had some roots in religion and spirituality, as many Christian and other religious beliefs centered around the notion that the mind was the spiritual vessel and the body was the source of sin and impurity. And so, we inherited a culture that largely divided human existence into the distinct components of body and mind.
But our understanding of the mind-body connection has been rapidly evolving in recent decades. Both changes in perception and developments in scientific research have reshaped our definitions of mind and body—and how interwoven the two really are. This is evident not only in cultural notions, but also in the rise of practices such as yoga, meditation, acupuncture, massage therapy, and others.
The intersection of mind and body is not only fascinating but also has the ability to transform and improve our lives in myriad ways. We just have to know how this relationship works, and how we can use the mind-body connection to our benefit.
One of the greatest discoveries we've made in the 20th and 21st centuries is just how much mental health impacts physical health—and vice versa.
When we're scared or anxious, we can feel physical symptoms like our heart rate increasing, our breath getting shallow, and trembling. This is the mind-body connection at its simplest and clearest. We feel an emotion or have a thought, and our body responds immediately and recognizably.
But this link between our physical and mental states goes much deeper. Take, for example, our understanding of heart disease.
Recent research has shown that mental health is associated with risk factors for heart disease. Conditions like PTSD, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and chronic stress are all thought to be potential contributors to heart disease. When we feel stressed, the body responds by releasing the hormone cortisol. Over time, this can increase things like blood cholesterol and blood pressure—factors that are known to play a role in heart disease.
This stress response can also impair our immune systems and increase our susceptibility to any number of illnesses. Examples of these impacts of mental health (or disorder) on physical health are numerous and demonstrate just how important it is to "get" the mind-body connection.
With all of the developments in our conceptions surrounding mental and physical health, how we treat the mind and the body has also had to evolve. Medical doctors have to take our emotional health into account. Therapists use techniques based on the interconnection between mind and body. Massage therapists will ask us about personal stressors. Yoga instructors spend entire careers preaching about the integration of mind and body.
Whether we're dealing with the common cold, COVID-19, or cancer, it's essential to address the mental and emotional factors of our physical health. Not too long ago, this approach would have been thought of as a bunch of hooey (and some folks still have that perception). But the science is there to back it up: our emotional state can have far-reaching, long-term, serious impacts on our well-being. And approaching our physical health accordingly can make all the difference.
In the reverse, the impact that our physical health and experiences have on our mental state demonstrates just how inextricable the mind and body are. If we take a moment to close our eyes and calm our breath, we can change the state and chemistry of our body.
The brain is just one of many organs, connected to every other part of us through vessels, nerves, chemicals, and signals. When we take a step back to remember this, it suddenly feels silly to even use the terms "mind" and "body." Our mind is a part of our body and is impacted by every physical pleasure, condition, malady, injury, stressor, or relaxer. When we tune into our body to destress or unwind, the mind reacts in kind. It's just biology.
So, now that we (hopefully) have a solid grasp on the intricacy and importance of the mind-body connection, we can figure out how to better care for our minds and bodies.
Here are a few of the most beneficial mind-body practices:
Yoga is a centuries-old practice that has become wildly popular in modern Western culture. It involves a variety of practices centered around the body and the mind, many of which are built upon an understanding that body influences mind and mind influences body.
Guided Imagery is one of the most poignant examples of the mind-body connection. It's frequently practiced as visualizations that are beneficial for relaxation or meditation (examples can include a beach, a flickering candle, or a serene landscape). It is a powerful tool for calming the mind-body. And research has found that the act of visualizing something can closely mimic the mind's experience of actually, physically performing the activity. A true revelation in mind-body science.
Tai Chi is another centuries-old practice that for many functions as a moving meditation and can be used for stress management.
Meditation is a practice that we're likely all familiar with—even if we don't ourselves do it. It's another perfect example of the inseparability of the mind and body. Is it a body practice? Is it a mind practice? The fact is that it's both—and when we practice meditation, it's pretty easy to figure out that there's just no separating the two. Meditating regularly brings calm to the body and calm to the mind.
Massage Therapy deals with our physical bodies. But just about anyone who's ever had a massage knows how intertwined they can be with our emotional state. Massage can reduce stress. It can bring up deeply held emotions. It can help us process traumas. It's an incredible method for healing both the body and the mind.
The fact is that there are almost endless ways to utilize the mind-body connection mechanism. We can walk and run (or do any kind of exercise you can think of) to reduce depression and anxiety. Take deep breaths when we're overwhelmed. Get good sleep to keep ourselves happy and productive. Dance it out when we're feeling down. Keep our minds and emotions well to keep illness at bay. Take breaks to keep our immune systems strong...The list goes on.
Whatever it is that we choose to do, just remembering that the mind and the body are practically inseparable will go a long way.