Your overall well-being involves a mind-body connection that balances how you feel. The relationship between physical illness and stress is a prime example.
"This new science is forcing the medical community to take more seriously the popular notions of the mind-body connection," Esther M. Sternberg, MD, director of the Integrative Neural Immune Program at the National Institute of Mental Health, tells NIH Medline Plus.
Our response to stress, the body’s hormones, can be helpful, Sternberg says, until the response to stress goes on for too long. “That’s when you get sick,” she says.
Sternberg notes that when your computer is overworked you reboot it, but when our bodies are stressed we don’t seem to take ourselves “offline.”
Yet, severe, chronic stress has been shown to prolong wound healing, decrease response to vaccines, and increase the frequency and severity of upper respiratory infections, Sternberg says.
It also “aggravates” existing health problems such as angina, disturbs heart rhythm, raises blood pressure, and can lead to stroke. It can trigger asthma attacks and may affect the digestive system. “Stress can play havoc with your nerves and muscles, causing backaches, tension headaches, or migraines,” she adds.
Virtually everyone can and needs to do more to keep stress in check to keep the mind-body connection in balance — warding off disease and debilitating conditions.
"If you're exhausted from constantly working on deadline or caregiving, take a vacation — they're not luxuries, they're physical necessities,” Sternberg says. “Find a place of peace where you can stop, look, and listen."
If a vacation isn’t possible, she suggests meditation to rest body and mind, which improves immune function by reducing stress hormones.
Until about 300 years ago, medicine around the world treated the mind and body as a whole, according to the University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing. During the 17th century, the Western world separated the body from the mind as if they were distinct. The body became more of a machine with replaceable, independent parts.
Today, Western medicine has come full circle by acknowledging that science has found definite, complex links between the body and the mind.
"Mind-body medicine requires that we ground information about the science of mind-body approaches in practical, personal experience,” says James Gordon, director and founder of Center for Mind-Body Medicine, ”that we appreciate the centrality of meditation to these practices; and that we understand — experientially as well as scientifically — that the health of our minds and the health of our bodies are inextricably connected to the transformation of the spirit."
Research has confirmed the medical and mental benefits of meditation, mindfulness training, yoga, and other mind-body practices,” adds integrative psychiatrist James Lake, MD, of Stanford University. One study found that mindfulness therapy may work as well as antidepressant drugs.
Mind-body therapies can include patient support groups, cognitive-behavioral therapy, meditation, prayer, creative arts therapies (art, music, or dance), yoga, biofeedback, tai chi, Qi gong, relaxation, hypnosis, and guided imagery.
In addition to meditation or another practice that addresses the stress, you should strive to take action to resolve a stressful situation if possible, says the Chopra Center.
“Talk to friends about what you can do to change a situation or gain a new perspective on it,” the Center says. Or, consider getting help from a conflict resolution expert if necessary.
The Chopra Center also suggests practicing mindful awareness of your body, understanding your unique stress response, gettinf plenty of sleep, and doing activities you enjoy.
When practicing mindful awareness of your body, the Chopra Center means that you “feel what you feel,” rather than talk yourself into denial, accept what you feel rather than judge what’s actually there, be open to you body, and trust your body.
Your “body is always speaking,” the Chopra center says. “Be willing to listen…. Every cell is on your side, which means you have hundreds of billions of allies.”
June 02, 2016
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA