The “Mind-Body Connection”: Changing Despair to Hope

From Great Life Magazine, February 2005

Q: I’ve heard the term “mind-body connection” mentioned frequently in the past decade. What does that really mean, and what does it mean about my health?

A: Great questions! While the “mind” is generally understood to mean the thoughts that come from the “brain”, these thoughts are actually a series of chemical reactions that do involve the brain, but also involve other parts of the body. For example, you’ve heard the term “gut feeling.” Turns out this concept is literally true: the intestines have as many, if not more, receptors for biochemical information units conveyed through the nervous system (neuropeptides) than the brain itself. Therefore, a “gut feeling” occurs when something either from the environment (a visual stimulus like a handsome face or a physical sensation like a gash in your skin) or from within (a memory) triggers a cascade of chemicals which produces a distinct impression, such as desire, or fear. This feeling will often be felt in the mid-section, although intellectually registered in the brain. You will all be familiar also with “heart feelings” which are generally those of sorrow or adoration. Everyone knows that “heart break” can literally be felt in the chest area; this is the part of your body that contacts another person in deep, not-necessarily-sexual, embrace. If you’re sort of lukewarm about someone, you are unlikely to press your heart area against their heart area. As another example of “mind-body”, you know how it feels to have stifled communication get “stuck” in your throat. The throat will actually constrict when you attempt to express a difficult emotion, or when someone else is preventing you from speaking your truth. It is especially interesting to me that women have traditionally suffered more from insufficient opportunities for full expression and are also much more likely than men to suffer sexual abuse. The part of the spine behind the throat is called the “cervical” spine; the entrance to our wombs is called the “cervix.” There’s a connection between the throat and the cervix; they are connected by a deep network of women’s cultural and emotional history. To me, the single most important event of the 20th century was the resurrection of women’s emancipation. Keep going for it, ladies!

So how does this information play into healthcare? It starts with recognizing that not only do your thoughts greatly affect your body, but that you are the ONLY person who can make positive changes in your own mental outlook. If you approach life, or a new situation, with anxiety and a negative attitude, emotions of hopelessness and despair will physically trigger neuropeptides like cortisol and adrenaline, which are, respectively, immuno-suppressive and vaso-constrictive. This means you are much more likely to get sick and have reduced blood flow to the brain and vital organs when you are engaged in negative emotions. However, a positive attitude, telling yourself that you CAN win or that you WILL do your best, helps to generate endorphins and enkephalins (the body’s natural “opiates”) and also dopamine, which increase blood flow and improve resistance to pathogens.

The central nervous system (brain and nerves) is divided loosely into two domains: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is better known as the “flight or fight” response and is driven mostly by the biochemical adrenaline. Adrenaline, also known as epinephrine, is an extremely potent chemical that severely, if very temporarily, curtails blood flow. For example, a surgeon will numb an area before cutting with a pain killer (like lidocaine for example) but also injects epinephrine because then the cut blood vessels hardly bleed at all. Adrenaline can save your life if you need to run away from danger fast, but the body can’t really tell what degree of danger you’re facing. Therefore the sympathetic nervous system kicks in with stimulation from everyday stressors such as getting the kids to school, getting to work on time, meeting a professional deadline, following through on a favor for a friend. And, most importantly, you get into the “fight or flight” mode, unnecessarily, whenever you engage in negative self-talk, despair, hopelessness, or refusing to see options. Adrenaline is very speedy; it will wear you down, and age you prematurely. So, be wise about how often you choose to get yourself all worked up. Hope, and serenity, and positive thinking which includes loving self-acceptance, all produce a parasympathetic nervous state. In contrast to “fight or flight”, the parasympathetic system is sometimes called the “feed and breed” response. Digestion, lactation, relaxation are examples of parasympathetic activities. The main neuropeptide in this system is acetylcholine, which is partly derived from your health food store supplement lecithin. Yes, add lecithin to your morning yogurt or oatmeal to help smooth out your day. Two heaping teaspoons daily should suffice. Even better, look at yourself in the eyes daily, using a private mirror, and radiate love at yourself. Simply BEAM the love back in. This simple meditation not only enhances production of acetylcholine and endorphins, it will garner you positive attention from your family, co-workers and community friends and neighbors. Nobody really wants to spend too much time with a whiner! When you feel alone, afraid or upset, start with loving yourself as genuinely as possible. Focus on your assets; forgive your imperfections. Be willing to experience the power of positive thinking it will help keep you young and happy. Better than the alternative!