It is a well accepted fact that our physical health impacts our emotional health—we feel happier as a result of exercise and research shows that physical activity is one of the keys in treating depression. It goes beyond exercise though—research shows that positioning your body in certain ways can affect your sense of confidence and smiling even when you are unhappy can boost your mood.
But can our mind (our thoughts, feelings, attitudes and beliefs) affect our physical health?
The answer is a resounding “Yes!” and the evidence to support this notion is robust.
With new brain imaging technology, neuroscientists can actually see the activation of areas of the brain and their effects on the immune and endocrine systems. The conclusions drawn from research studying the mind-body connection, is that the mind can assist in the treatment of a range of illnesses like heart disease, arthritis and chronic pain. The film and the website, The Connection, highlights the remarkable impact of mind-body practices on physical health, even on severe illnesses.
Evidence-based mind-body treatments that promote health include relaxation exercises, visualisation, yoga, psychological therapy, Tai chi, prayer and art therapies. One of the most powerful ways to benefit from the mind-body connection is through mindfulness.
Mindfulness was first used in the realm of medicine in 1979 by Jon Kabat Zinn, from the University of Massachusetts Centre for Mindfulness to treat severe chronic pain, defined as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experiences moment to moment.” Psychological therapies also began incorporating mindfulness and other mind-body practices in the treatment a variety of emotional, physical, and behavioural problems and disorders.
Now mindfulness has hit the mainstream, with programs being implemented in work places and schools. In big companies like Aetna and General Mills in the United States, employees showed improvement in productivity, decision-making skills, relationships with colleagues, resilience and a reduction of days off work due to illness. Further research has shown that mindfulness practice over relatively short periods can actually change the structure of the brain, stimulate neuronal growth in the areas of our brain responsible for planning and decision-making, improve our immune system, and reduce stress.
So continue to focus on the physical factors that promote health by maintaining a healthy diet and a regular exercise routine but do not neglect the mental influences on your overall well-being. Make mindfulness a part of your daily life, even if you begin with two minutes per day, the benefits will be both immediate and long-standing.
The mind-body connection is a reality and if we harness its powers, we can achieve optimum physical and emotional well-being.