Our minds and emotions play a critical role in our health. Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, taught that good health depends on a balance of mind, body, and environment. Many ancient healing systems in fact emphasized the interconnection between mind and body in healing. While these insights of old may not have had the benefit of modern research, the wisdom has proven true.
Harvard scientist Walter Cannon, MD, first identified the fight-or-flight response back in the 1920’s. He showed that during times of stress the body secretes hormones called catecholamines, such as epinephrine and nonepinephrine. When they enter the blood stream, these hormones produce changes in the body – quickened heart or increased breathing rate—that put the person in a better physical state to escape from or confront danger. Later, Hungarian-born scientist Hans Selye, MD, pioneered the field of stress research by describing how the wear-and-tear of constant stress could affect us biologically.
Since then, research and studies from prominent doctors and mental health professionals have resulted in many scientific breakthroughs that have illuminated the mind-body connection in health. We now know, as example, that individuals can be trained to control certain physical responses, such as blood pressure which was previously considered to be involuntary. This discovery gave birth to biofeedback, which has now been found to be effective in the treatment of anxiety, attention deficit disorder, headache, and hypertension.
Meditation, yoga, and other relaxation techniques have also been shown to bring about positive physiological changes including a lower heart rate, lower breathing rate, and decreased muscle tension along with positive changes in brain waves. Mind-body techniques that elicit this relaxation response have been successful in treating many stress-related disorders.
Based on a Buddhist meditation practice, Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, at the University of Massachusetts, developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a mediation technique that has successfully reduced physical and psychological symptoms in many medical conditions, including pain syndromes. Further studies on the links between the brain, behavior and immune function, founded the field of psychoneuroimmunology, which researches ways to increase immune function through the use of the mind.
Guided imagery, which focuses and directs the imagination in proactive and positive ways, has been shown to reduce anxiety and pain in many people suffering from medical conditions like asthma, back pain, and headache. It’s even used to help patients better tolerate medical procedures and treatments.
Today we understand that emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and behavioral factors can directly affect our physical health. An article by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) stated, “Mind-body medicine has provided evidence that psychological factors can play a major role in such illnesses as heart disease, and that mind-body techniques can aid in their treatment.”
Stress is only one of many mental health issues that affect our bodies, and yet stress alone is considered to be a factor in five out of the six leading causes of death — heart disease, cancer, stroke, lower respiratory disease, and accidents. Estimates are that 75 percent to 90 percent of all doctor visits are for stress-related issues:
Respiratory and Cardiovascular Systems
- Stress hormones affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems
- Stress can make it harder to breathe if you have respiratory problems like asthma or emphysema
- Stress hormones cause your blood vessels to constrict and raise your blood pressure
- Frequent or chronic stress raises your risk of hypertension and problems with your blood vessels and heart. You’re at higher risk of having a stroke or heart attack
- Under stress, your liver produces extra blood sugar which when prolonged can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes
- The rush of hormones can upset your digestive system creating heartburn or acid reflux
- Stress doesn’t cause ulcers but stress may cause existing ulcers to act up
- Stress can affect the way food moves through your body, leading to diarrhea or constipation
- Under prolonged stress, tight muscles don’t get the chance to properly relax. Tight muscles cause headaches, back and shoulder pain, and body aches
Sexuality and Reproductive System
- It’s not unusual to lose your desire for sex when you’re under chronic stress
- For women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle causing irregular or no menstruation, or heavier and more painful periods
- The physical symptoms of menopause may be magnified under chronic stress
- Under prolonged stress, testosterone levels in men begin to drop which can interfere with sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction or impotence
- Chronic stress may make the urethra, prostate, and testes more prone to infection
- Stress stimulates the immune system so in short term, stress helps you stave off infection and heal wounds. Over time, cortisol compromises your immune system, inhibiting histamine secretion and inflammatory response to foreign invaders
- Chronic stress increases susceptibility to viral illnesses like influenza and the common cold
- Stress increases risk of other opportunistic diseases and infections
- Stress can also increase the time it takes to recover from illness or injury
As surly as stress affects our mind and emotional health, so too can the mind provide protection. In a day and age when the stresses of everyday life are considered to be higher than ever before, it is especially important that we recognize the importance of the mind-body connection in maintaining not only our mental well-being, but also good physical health. Mindfulness, Biofeedback and Neurofeedback, Cognitive Behavioral Therapies, Imagery; these and many others are strategies used by counselors to improve how we think and react to the events that affect our lives and all have proven to improve physical health.