The body and mind are inextricably linked. Contrary to the dualistic view often associated with the mind-body problem, the mind isn’t a separate entity from the body. Scientific studies continue to throw up evidences of how these two seemingly separate realms are always influencing and affecting each other. Although there is a long way to go to fully unearth the exact mechanisms and extent of this mind-body interplay, what’s certain is that a healthy mind is essential for a healthy body, for preventing and countering psychosomatic symptoms or diseases and for enhancing performance and quality of life. Health and wellness approaches that give equal importance to the mind (for example those that incorporate mindfulness and emphasize mind-body awareness) are generally the more successful and sustainable ones.
Here are some of the many manifestations of the mind-body interplay:
a) On one end of the spectrum, consider everyday experiences like having butterflies in your stomach, crying, blushing, shortness of breath etc., all physical manifestations of emotions and thoughts – reflections of one’s state of mind. Nothing problematic here, but just goes to show that this interplay is evident even in the mundane, everyday aspects of existence.
b) Physical symptoms of some underlying psychological conditions – these may broadly be called psychosomatic symptoms. Some of these symptoms can be very hard to diagnose because there is often no root cause “physical ailment” that can be caught in standard medical tests. These symptoms can range from headaches, brain fog/dizziness, chest pains, palpitations, breathlessness, tremors, insomnia and gastrointestinal symptoms (often vaguely diagnosed under the umbrella of IBS) and can be even severely debilitating, like migraines. It is interesting to note that the symptoms are often alleviated by reducing mental stress and anxiety or resolving the underlying psychological issue.
c) It has been well established that behavioural patterns of our mind can cause what are known as psychosomatic diseases (known physical diseases that stem from and/or are exacerbated by psychological factors). The most studied of these is the comorbidity of depression, anxiety and cardiac diseases. There is irrefutable proof that recurring depressive disorders play a major role in triggering critical cardiac events, e.g. myocardial infarction.
d) The gut is of course a key link and deserves to be mentioned separately. We know now that the gut and the microbiota play a very important role in mental health and vice versa. We’ve all experienced how poor digestion affects the mind or how high levels of anxiety and stress can wreak havoc on our digestion. The enteric nervous system (a complex system of about 100 million nerves that oversees every aspect of digestion) is even called the “second brain” because of its close linkages with the central nervous system. It’s also the main pathway for psychosomatic symptoms of the gut. In general, a calm and balanced mind is usually accompanied by clean, healthy digestion.
The problem is that while most of us focus on getting physical fit, losing weight and looking great, not many of us even consider the importance of strategies that specifically target to achieve a calm and balanced mind. The reasons are many – one’s state of mind is very subjective, very personal, but most importantly there is the social stigma around mental health. Who among us would accept that there is anything wrong with our minds, right? – I mean we’re not mad! Yes, the stigma around mental health has its roots deep in present day social psyche.
Strategies that work:
We’ve seen that an approach and rhetoric that gives emphasis to enhancing overall quality of life and preventing health issues, resonates better with most people, than talking specifically about curing mental ills. Wellness is essentially on the preventive side, not the curative side of healthcare and the mind should be as crucial a part of preventive healthcare as anything else.
There are two related threads that emerge from all the research into how the mind and body influence each other. The first being that a calm and balanced mind is essential for a healthy body and so any techniques that specifically help in reducing anxiety and stress are important for overall well-being. The second being that developing one’s awareness of the body and the mind-body interplay is itself a key step towards well-being. Here are some techniques that can be used to incorporate both these factors into health and wellness programmes:
1) Mindfulness & meditation – training oneself to be more mindful is known to significantly reduce stress, improve concentration and increase self-awareness and happiness. It also has a cascading effect on physical well-being by improving cardiovascular health, enhancing immunity and reducing inflammation, among other things. Mindfulness is basically non-judgemental awareness of mind-body phenomena. Meditation is a key tool in developing mindfulness and it comes in many forms. We’ve seen that techniques that help build awareness of one’s own reality – of breath, body sensations and thoughts and emotions – are useful to train oneself to be more mindful, calm and also be aware of the mind-body connection.
2) Yoga (although the term means so much more, here we refer to yogasanas, the yoga postures) – the core of yoga is awareness of the mind-body connection. Every posture requires one to be acutely aware of the body and breath. It cultivates awareness of how mental states influence the body/postures and vice versa.
3) Calisthenics – while calisthenics is essentially a set of strength training techniques that use body weight for resistance, it also trains one to focus and be acutely aware of muscle tension and physical movements, much like yoga. It is known to significantly enhance practitioners’ awareness of the mind-body connection.
This awareness of the body and therefore the mind-body connection is in fact essential for anyone to make progress in calisthenics, the same is true of Yoga as well.
We have seen from direct experience and from the experience of others who participate in wellness programmes that incorporate at least one, if not a combination of techniques as listed above, can go a long way in enhancing overall health and well-being, as opposed to routines that focus only on the physical aspects of health.