When a new patient named Liza came into the clinic complaining of fatigue, chronic pain, insomnia, and IBS, our first question after taking her history was: “What kind of stressors are you dealing with these days?” She quickly chalked up her day-to-day as a typical 40-something working mom with middle-school children whose husband traveled a lot. Was there stress? Of course. But she had always been good at handling it and said she “felt genuinely happy” except for when she was feeling sick.
After the functional medical team ran a few tests to understand what was at play biochemically, we determined that her body was managing an onslaught of stress hormones that were increasing inflammation, impairing gut motility and absorption, and sending her blood sugar on a rollercoaster. Our number one clinical suggestion for Liza? Improve her mind-body connection.
We looked to CIH psychologist Dr. Diane Gilman to better understand the mind-body connection and why balancing it is key to healing acute and chronic illness.
What is the Mind-Body connection?
“Just like it sounds, the body and mind are connected through a complex network of physiological pathways. They are connected both directly and indirectly, constantly in communication to ensure your systems are up and running properly. A thought or feeling can send a cascade of hormones coursing through your body, redirect circulation, slow digestion and temporarily depress immune system functioning. And this is just a short-list of all the systemic changes that can occur.
Additionally, chronic illness, pain or discomfort can reinforce negative thought patterns and simultaneously increase the physical stress. So when Liza speaks of only feeling down when she is sick, we see how the physical state of the body can stimulate feelings of stress and low mood. These feelings further enhance physiological stress which impedes the healing response, exacerbates existing physical symptoms and even initiates new ones.
A remarkable example of this are recent studies linking an increase of baseline inflammatory CRP levels to PTSD. It’s unclear which is the chicken or the egg, but the connection is striking for its implications for overall health.” (1, 2)
Why is it key to healing?
“Conscious awareness of how our mind and body influence one another can propel healing beyond a pill or standard talk therapy. When we learn to pay attention to the changes in our body during stressful times, we can signal the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) to put the “brakes” on our stress response so we can again relax.
Our bodies crave balance, so it is natural for our bodies to flip into the PNS for recovery. The real issue occurs when we have chronic stress, be it physical or mental, which many of us do especially in the DC area. When the stress response is activated for a long period and we don’t have the chance for recovery, our systems become perpetually out-of-balance. In other words, for those of us like Liza, we flip between constipation and diarrhea, our hands stay colder, our wounds heal more slowly, we get sick more easily, or can’t sleep . We may even experience chronic muscle tension, elevated heart rate, impaired reproduction, and a constant sense that we can’t catch our breath.”
How can we improve our Mind-Body connection?
“Building awareness of how the body and mind work together can start with a 5 minute practice of any of the following techniques. For someone like our busy mom Liza, these few minutes of practice 2 or 3 times a day (especially before falling asleep) will make a tremendous difference in her stress response–immediately paying off with more energy and less pain in her day-to-day life.”
Altering your breathing is the quickest and most effective way to engage the mind-body connection. When the breath slows and becomes deeper, it automatically triggers the PNS to promote healing and a sense of calm. Try inhaling for a count of 4, holding for a count of 7, and exhaling for a count of 8- making sure you are doing diaphragmatic or deep belly breathing.
2) Progressive muscle relaxation
Sit or lie down in a comfortable position with eyes closed. Squeeze every muscle, from the toes to the head, for 5 seconds and then let it go. Concentrate on the feeling of relaxation as the muscles expand back into their natural state.
Studies show that even simple yoga stretches and twists can engage the relaxation response and promote a sense of peace. Pair the moves with your breath for a bigger PNS boost. Restorative poses like Child’s pose or Legs Up the Wall pose are especially helpful and easy to do.
4) Mindfulness Meditation
This type of meditation does not involve clearing the mind, so it is easier to do when we have physical or mental stressors. The goal is to sit or recline quietly, with eyes closed, and increase awareness of your body and the space around you. Any negative thoughts or sensations should be noticed non-judgmentally, and then try to let them go again.
5) Imagery and Visualization
When added to a standard meditation or deep breathing practice, imagery and visualization boost the body’s healing response. With eyes closed, picture an ideal physical or mental state and be very detailed. Your mind tells your body what to do, so the more specific and positive the better.
*Diane Gilman is a Licensed Psychologist at CIH and is the Owner and Executive Director of The Center for Mind and Body Health LLC.