We all know that the mind and the body are linked. Apart from anything else, it is of course the mind that we use in order to control our bodies, so there has to be at least some kind of relationship here (in fact this happens because they are physically linked via the central nervous system). What many people fail to realise though is just how strong the link is the other way – just how much the condition of our body can affect our mind. Likewise, many people don’t realise just how much of their body their mind can influence. You don’t just use your mind in order to move your arms and legs – your mood and your disposition can just as easily affect your health, your metabolism and more. Read on to find out just how strong this mind/body link is, and how you can take advantage of it.
How Stress Leads to Illness
One important aspect of this complex relationship to remember, is that the mind can make the body ill. If you think you are ill, if you are stressed, or if you’re depressed, then you can actually make yourself more likely to become unwell.
For instance then, if you were under a lot of stress at work, it would cause your body to produce a lot of adrenaline in order to trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response. While this was once an adaptive response that could help us to escape predators and to fight opponents, these days our stress tends to be more ‘ongoing’ which means the response will last longer. This in turn can then cause our body to become exhausted and our immune system to become strained (cortisol too is bad for the immune system which is produced when we are ill) – and eventually that’s likely to cause an illness.
Likewise, being an ‘angry’ person can cause an elevated heart rate and blood pressure leading to potential heart attack and generally your mood can make you more vulnerable to illness in a range of situations.
Mood Can Fight Illness
On the other hand, if you are able to control your mood and cheer up, you will find that this can actually strengthen your immune system and help to lessen pain. Studies have shown that spending time with supportive friends and family can actually help to increase the chances of surviving cancer – particularly if you spend time with them laughing and hugging. In fact, some studies have even shown that there’s a correlation between having an optimistic frame of mind and being likely to recover from various diseases. If you can cultivate an optimistic and upbeat persona and surround yourself with friends and family, then you may find you live a longer and healthier life as a result.
Some Illnesses Are ‘In the Head’
It is possible in some cases for illnesses to be mostly psychological. Here it is not the case that changing your mood can improve your illness: rather you can improve the condition because it is defined by your thought processes.
These conditions are called ‘psychosomatic’, meaning that they may have a basis in something physical, but that they are also very much impacted by psychology and by your perception of that problem. Note though that this is not to say that the problem is any less real as a result.
For instance, one condition called ‘phantom limb syndrome’ sees amputees suffering with pains and itches in their missing limbs – often then will imagine the limb to be paralysed and frozen in an uncomfortable position and this creates a lot of frustration as they are unable to move it and relieve the discomfort. They are in real pain and the condition is certainly ‘real’, but at the same time it is created by a psychological process. Doctors and therapists in some cases can therefore use optical illusions to make them feel as though they are moving the limb (sometimes they will even use virtual reality simulations), and by changing the patient’s ‘body image’ they are then able to make the pain miraculously disappear.
What’s even more impressive, is that the same technique has occasionally been used with success on paralyzed patients. While they have real damage to their nerves and brain that causes them to stop being able to move their limbs, their disability will also often have a psychological ‘aspect’ as they have come to learn that they can’t move those limbs. By teaching them that they in fact can, it is often possible to give them back some mobility. Many illnesses have a ‘psychosomatic’ aspect, while others are completely created in the mind. A good doctor should recognise this possibility and take it into account when advising treatment options.
Your Brain Dictates Your Lifestyle
The above is one area of research that is of interest to ‘health psychology’. Something else that falls into the category of health psychology is how psychology dictates lifestyle and healthy behaviours. Of course your mind affects the health of your body, because it is with your brain that you take the decision to start a diet, to give up smoking, or to generally try and improve your health.
As such then, this is another way in which your brain plays a role in your overall health, and it is another important area to consider when trying to improve health. If you are intending on starting a new training program, then something you should always do is to try and look at the way you think about that training program, the amount of energy you have due to psychological factors and why you perhaps didn’t stick to it last time.
Your Brain Changes Your Performance
One of the most powerful ways to demonstrate the connection between the mind and body is to look at the placebo effect. Placebos are what happens when we believe something so strongly that it becomes manifest – a great example of which being when a sugar pill is administered to a patient and then actually helps them to recover from whatever condition they were previously suffering from. The pill only contains sugar and has no active agent, but the simple fact that the patient is now focussing on the positive changes in their body, experiencing less stress and acting as though they are feeling better can help them considerably anyway.
Placebo though goes beyond just a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ and can cause changes in the body which we can’t yet completely explain. In the TV programme ‘Fear and Faith’, illusionist and sceptic Derren Brown managed to help people overcome everything from phobias to allergies using the placebo effect.
Most people recognise how useful an understanding of body language can be when it comes to guessing someone’s feelings and thoughts. The way we stand, the expression we pull and even the way we rest our arms can all indicate unconscious or hidden emotions and intentions and this can make it a useful tool for ‘reading’ the mind.
But what people are less aware of is that the relationship between our body language and our mind also works the other way. In other words, when we cross our arms that can tell people that we are feeling closed off from everyone else and perhaps in a bad mood, but at the same time it can also cause us to become more closed off and actually negatively impact on our mood. When people throw their arms in the air because they have scored a goal in football or crossed a finish line in a race, this doesn’t just display their joy and confidence – it actually also causes a further spike in testosterone and serotonin increasing our mood and confidence. Some careers advisors thus recommend using ‘power positions’ in front of a mirror before an interview.
Even more subtle changes like your facial expression can alter your brain chemistry – even if you’re in a bad mood, forcing yourself to smile can help to increase serotonin thus cheering you back up due to something called ‘facial feedback’.
So the connection between your mind and body is a strong and complex one. Use that connection and try to understand it. And make sure you look after both your brain and your body – that way they will also look after each other and you’ll notice wide-ranging improvements in every aspect of your life.