Whenever the idea of a mind and body connection is discussed in relation to our health, people often think about more alternative types of practices. Often classified as complementary and alternative medicine, activities like yoga or meditation are the most common ways for individuals to tap into this mind-body element.
While many types of practices can help us to tune into our physical well being, scientists have found that our thoughts can impact our health from a more direct standpoint. Not only does our mental health play a role in our overall level of health, but the way we think about our own physical activity can actually shape our outcomes.
The Mind Body Connection
While it’s not entirely surprising, the aspect of mental health and its link to physical health isn’t as widely discussed as you might think. However, according to the Merriam-Webster definition of the word “health,” elements of mind, body, and spirit are all encompassed within this one word. Examining your own mental health can often shine a light on how your emotional state is affecting your body.
Mental illness is becoming an increasingly common condition, as nearly 44 million people are affected by a mental health concern in any given year. These diagnoses can range from mild depression to paranoia or schizophrenia, and the ways in which symptoms manifest themselves can vary dramatically. The common thread, however, is that whatever may be affecting us mentally also shows up in our bodies.
Let’s examine depression, a well-known issue that plagues many people around the world. Physical symptoms of this condition can include insomnia, chronic fatigue, and even aches and pains throughout your body. On a wider scale, those with mental health concerns can be subject to obesity, asthma, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
Beyond Just Mental Health
This connection between how we think and how we feel is even further proven with the study of psychosomatic pain, a condition where the body and mind are intimately linked to a particular set of emotions and symptoms. Many who struggle with this disorder are often sent from doctor to doctor, as it’s difficult for Western medical practitioners to diagnose and treat it. However, as more research develops, it’s becoming clear that a true mind-body link can be attributed to these conditions.
Chronic pain has been linked to psychosomatic causes, as the mind can produce or exacerbate physical symptoms. John Sarno, a leading expert in psychosomatic medicine, developed a theory that many symptoms are an unconscious distraction to aid in repression of deep emotional issues. In layman terms, people start to feel physical pain rather than experience emotional pain. There have been hundreds of cases of different health issues, ranging from temporary blindness, muscle pain, inability to walk, etc, that have been tied back to psychosomatic reasons.
Case Study About Exercise
While the mind-body link is fascinating, you may be wondering how it relates to your specific health challenges. Perhaps you are conscious of your mental health and take measures to create balance in your life. You might even exercise a few times per week but find that losing weight or lowering your blood pressure seems to be out of reach. Once again, how you think about your health may actually be contributing to the effects you’re seeing.
Scientists at Stanford University embarked upon a 21-year project which examined 61,000 adults and their patterns of thought around exercise. The data collected included how often the participants engaged in physical activity as well as how they felt about their own efforts compared to their peers.
Some of the individuals died during the study from a wide range of health issues, but the overall trend that was discovered is quite surprising. Those who thought they were not engaging in as much activity as their peers actually died younger than others, despite implementing the exact same amount of exercise as others.
What caused this pattern to emerge? Researchers attribute it to a number of possible factors, all of which continue to support the strong notion of the mind-body connection:
- Comparing ourselves to others may encourage a demotivation, where if we believe we are less fit than our friends and family, we may not even bother trying to exercise in the first place.
- Placing strict expectations on ourselves can create undue stress and may lead to negative health conditions. This outcome is also supported by the data examining how our mental health and emotions can dictate our physical health.
- The final reason for early death in those who thought they were less active might be attributed to what is being called the “nocebo effect.” The simple act of a negative thought can be enough to lessen the amount of benefit, so if you believe you aren’t exercising enough, then your body will not reap the same amount of benefit compared to those who have a positive outlook.
When it comes to your mindset around physical activity and your overall health, it’s important to remember that you get to determine what elements encompass an active lifestyle. Working with your primary care physician to develop a diet and exercise plan that meets your needs is your best bet to seeing results, as long as you keep your thought process positive!