Your body and your mind are not as separate as you might think.
The body is made of complex and fascinating systems; however, these different systems do not work independently. Constant bidirectional communication between systems is the hallmark of nature, and the importance of this two-way communication cannot be understated.
This is to say, everything is connected to everything, and rather than a hierarchical organizational structure allowing one dominating system to dictate the actions of the others (i.e. the old model of the brain running the show, and the body mechanically doing the boss’ bidding), newer understanding of the body reveals an intelligent synergistic network, not only working in harmony, but as a cohesive and singular unit.
Cross-communication between systems means that each informs the other. For example, the activity of your immune system can affect your mood, and so can your mood affect the functioning of your immune system. It’s all about two-way streets and constant traffic in either direction: an on-going conversation between all of the various parts of you.
This “conversation” is nothing more than the sharing of information. In the previous example, the nervous system shares information about how you’re feeling emotionally with your digestive system, and the digestive system shares information about what it’s got going on back to the nervous system, each influencing the forward momentum of the other. So what is the nature of this information that is being shared?
Neuroscientist and pharmacologist Candace Pert, Ph.D., calls these informational substances “the molecules of emotion.” She discovered that these molecules – various peptides – are passed back and forth between our systems as a means of communication. And these peptides are the chemical basis of our emotions: the physical stuff that represents what we experience in our psyche.
As if that isn’t fascinating enough, there’s something else that is important to understand about this exchange of emotional molecules within our bodies: all the systems that together make up the body seem to both manufacture these molecules, as well as receive them. This is how the two-way communication works!
So why does this matter? This means that the mind and the body are not separate, but are one, or as Dr. Pert says, “your body is your subconscious mind!” It means that your emotions can be accessed and treated through your body as well as your mind, and that your mind/mood/emotions can be affected and treated through your body. This understanding can allow us to take a huge step towards overall improvement of health on every level (and by every level I mean physical health, mental health, emotional health, and spiritual health).
This is the basis for the idea that all physical illness has an emotional root.
Most people understand and accept the concept of psychosomatic illness – physical symptoms created by the mind – but in a negative light: as if by nature of being psychosomatic, the illness was never real, but was “all in your head.” However, just because an illness may have been created, whether in whole or in part, by a psychosomatic process, does not make the illness itself any less real or valid.
The inverse is also true: when a sick person is given a sugar pill but told it is a medicine that will cure them, when the person does in fact get better, this is called the placebo effect. This too is a well-known and accepted fact that is regarded negatively: the cure was never real, and it was “all in their head.”
But these two occurrences have powerful implications. Our thoughts have the power to make us sick, and our thoughts also have the power to make us well. The state of health produced by the mind, whether positive or negative, is no less real because of its source. The term psychosomatic simply implies a connection between psyche (mind) and soma (body), and the placebo effect is a powerful demonstration of the mind’s involvement in our overall state of being and in the healing process.[i]
Mayo Clinic physician Elmer Green said, “Every change in the physiological state is accompanied by an appropriate change in the mental emotional state, conscious or unconscious, and conversely, every change in the mental emotional state, conscious or unconscious, is accompanied by an appropriate change in the physiological state.”[ii]
And Dr. Pert adds this:
“Most psychologists treat the mind as disembodied, as phenomenon with little or no connection to the physical body. Conversely, physicians treat the body with no regard to the mind or the emotions. But the body and mind are not separate, and we cannot treat one without the other. My research has shown me that the body can and must be healed through the mind, and the mind can and must be healed through the body.”[iii]
The body is not divisible into separate units for convenient study.
Here are some examples of the interconnected “bodymind” at work:
- Heart attacks occur more frequently on Monday mornings than on any other day of the week – when the work week, which so many dread, is just beginning.[iv]
- Death rates drop just before and during emotional events of personal importance or interest, such as birthdays (in general) and religious holidays (among those who observe them), indicating that ailing individuals may “perk up” amidst the joy of celebrations.[v]
- People who are regularly optimistic have notably superior physical and mental health than those who are regularly pessimistic over the course of their lives.[vi]
- First year college students experiencing elevated feelings of loneliness throughout the semester have been found to be more susceptible to the influenza virus.[vii]
So what does this all mean in practical terms? What is one to do with this information?
1. Treat your emotions as valid! They are just as real and important as physical symptoms and material substances. Become aware of your emotions. Let them be. Recognize that your feelings are signals arising from the process of information affecting and creating matter (can I get a Keanu Reeves “woooooah”?).
2. Honour your feelings and allow them to flow. Don’t suppress and bottle up so-called negative emotions, but instead find healthy ways to experience them and exorcise them. This could include talking about how you feel, writing about it (journaling), exercising (running or hitting a punching bag can feel great when you’re angry), painting, visualizing, screaming (in an appropriate place), allowing yourself to cry, shaking, playing with freeform movement, or confronting someone you have an issue with. Writing or drawing something painful and then (safely) burning it can be a powerful symbol for release. There are also many types of therapy and support available. Find something that feels good for you.
3. Celebrate all the good things in your life! Practice optimism! Cultivate a positive mental outlook on life.
4. Laugh a lot. Make time for whatever you find fun. Enjoy your life. Learn to be able to laugh at yourself when you make mistakes and do or say silly things (because we ALL do these things ALL the time). Laugh, laugh, and laugh some more.
5. When you feel unwell, ask yourself hard questions about it. Poke around within your psyche and search for a possible root cause. Has something been bothering you? Have you been dishonest somewhere in your life? Do you have a basic need that has not been met? If you’re angry, what lies under your anger? Where is it coming from? Be gentle with yourself through this process.
6. Challenge yourself to take up meditation. There are many different types of meditation, including transcendental (chanting) meditation, mindfulness meditation, guided imagery meditation, walking meditation, and shaking meditation. Try a few different kinds to see what you like best. Start with two minutes at a time if you have to. You can easily make time for a two-minute meditation.
7. Try various forms of bodywork to access your emotions through your body. Go for a walk, a run, or a swim. Get a massage. Go to a chiropractor for a spinal adjustment. Consider shiatsu or osteopathy for other therapeutic forms of physical manipulation. Take a bath. Snuggle up with someone. Get some good hugs!
8. Be good to your body. Eat to nourish it and not to fulfill emotional needs (i.e. ask yourself if you actually feel hungry before you shove those chips in your face), but do take the time to enjoy your food when you eat. Move your body; get some exercise. Be still with your body; let it take a break when it needs it. Go to sleep when you’re tired. Be grateful for all the countless things your body does for you and puts up with every day. Love your body, because it is your subconscious mind; it is you.
9. Love yourself. You deserve it.
10. Respect the life around you. When you play the strings of a violin, the sound will resonate in the strings of a resting violin near by. It’s much the same with us and our cells. Emotional resonance is real, and as Candace Pert says, “our molecules of emotions are all vibrating together.”[viii] Ever picked up on someone else’s bad mood? We can feel what others feel. Do your best to be kind, and own your bad mood when it happens. Be considerate of the fact that, especially living in the cramped quarters of a bustling city, we’re all walking around in each other’s energy all day. It can be exhausting, so it’s important to take care of yourself and recharge, and also to be mindful of what energy you are contributing to the pool.
11. Spend time in nature as often as you can, ideally every day. This is one great way for us to recharge. Even if there are no green spaces near you, lift your eyes away from the concrete and spend some time looking at the sky. Take a moment to say hello to the moon when you spot her at night. Be still and take note of what phase she is in. Strengthen or reestablish your connection with the natural world.
12. Don’t read/listen to/watch the news before bed. Don’t watch a horror movie or read something upsetting. You’re about to let your unconscious mind completely take over for the next several hours, so let’s not flood it with upsetting images right before handing it the baton. Do something relaxing and pleasant before bed. A warm bath or reading an enjoyable story are classic bedtime suggestions for a good reason.
We are not only emotional creatures, but we are driven by our emotions in more widespread and thorough ways than was recently thought. Stay tuned in and aware of what you feel, and take care of your emotional self as well as your physical self, because it turns out that you can’t just do one, anyway.
Keep the good vibes going, friends.
[i] Pert, Candace. 2003. Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine, Scribner, NY. 232
[ii] ibid 137
[iii] ibid 274
[iv] Witte DR, Grobbee DE, Bots ML, Hoes AW. A Meta-Analysis of Excess Cardiac Mortality on Monday. European Journal of Epidemiology 2005; 20(5):401-406.
[v] Anson J, Anson O. Thank God It’s Friday: The Weekly Cycle of Mortality in Israel. Population Research and Policy Review 2000; 19(2)143-154.
Phillips DP, Feldman KA. A Dip in Deaths Before Ceremonial Occasions: Some New Relationships Between Social Integration and Mortality. American Sociological Review 1973;38(6):678-696
Idler EL, Kasl SV. Religion, Disability, Depression, and the Timing of Death. American Journal of Sociology 1992;97(4):1052-1079
[vi] Maruta T, Colligan RC, Malinchoc M, Offord KP. Optimism-pessimism assessed in the 1960s and self-reported health status 30 years later. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 2002; 77:748-753
[vii] Barkin A, Cohen S, Miller GE, Pressman SD, Rabin BS, Treanor JJ. Loneliness, Social Network Size, and Immune Response to Influenza Vaccination in College Freshmen. The American Psychological Association 2005;24(3):297-306.
[viii] Pert, Candace. 2003. Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine, Scribner, NY. 312