“What is A Mind-Body Connection Anyway?!”

Suanne Lewis 11/07

Many of us have heard the old-time song about “the leg bone’s connected to the ankle bone…” and, in general, we understand that a physical discomfort, like foot pain or an infection in a specific area, can affect the comfort level throughout our bodies. When it comes to considering how our thoughts or emotions are connected to what we traditionally think of as our physical being, however, the Western influence of viewing our bodies as separate entities may make the connection seem a little fuzzy.

In the traditional medicine of Eastern cultures, some of them quite ancient, such as Qi Gong (which is believed to have originated in India thousands of years ago and transported to China) or Ayurveda, a comparatively “young” medical tradition associated with the practice of Yoga, the “bodymind” is considered to be a single entity. In fact, these traditions maintain that the physical, emotional, and spiritual essence of each individual is intimately connected to all other beings and the universe at large.

With the development of advanced technologies, such as the electron microscope, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and quantum physics, modern Western scientists have become aware that many of the theories proposed by ancient Eastern sages have a scientific basis which apparently was intuited or observed through exquisitely sensitive and thorough observation in the far distant past. In recent years, there has been burgeoning research in many areas of health care illustrating that our thoughts, perceptions, and experiences truly affect our physiological health.

Charles Gerson, M.D., attending physician in gastroenterology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and co-director of The Mind-Body Digestive Center in New York City, is doing research with his wife Mary-Joan Gerson, Ph.D., studying the effects of treating irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) with a combined approach of psychological and physiological elements. Dr. Gerson proposes that IBS sufferers, while having distinct physiological problems also experience an increased incidence of psychological problems, like anxiety, depression, and increased stress levels. Treating both aspects is expected to be more efficacious than traditional approaches of treating the physiological symptoms. Mark Weisberg, Ph.D., ABPP, who is a clinical psychologist and instructor in Mind/Body Medicine for the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, also proposes a multimodal approach to IBS treatment, including the use of guided imagery, which focuses attention on sensory images in order to create positive emotional and physical responses in the whole mind-body system (Bellaruth Naparstek).

In another interesting study, Kim Innes, Ph.D. and MSPH, at the Center for the Study of Complementary and Alternative Therapies at the University of Virginia, has been studying the effects of yoga on insulin resistance, a condition that has been found to be a precursor of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. While more work is needed to determine exactly the process by which yoga placates the metabolic system, Innes proposes that regular yoga practice and its effects of stress relief and improved sense of well-being serve to bring the nervous system into balance, mediating the chronic activation of the flight-or-fight response thought to be responsible for many chronic illnesses.

Many research articles have been written about the effectiveness of mindfulness approaches on a variety of symptoms, such as anxiety and depression. Briefly, mindfulness is a form of meditative awareness in which the individual focuses on the present moment, no matter how routine, without judgment. Some practitioners focus on a specific target such as breathing, or might focus on routine daily activities, like walking or eating. Ultimately mindfulness enhances the ability to monitor thoughts and emotions, enabling individuals to reflect on and choose more appropriate responses. While this practice has proven to be very useful in reducing anxiety in many populations from surgical patients to trauma survivors, a study was reported in the most recent edition of Psychosocial Nursing (11/07), in which a mindfulness program helped reduce anxiety symptoms in schizophrenic patients, increasing coping ability and stress reduction.

Mind-Body Medicine could be called a relatively new field, because it has developed a Western following with scientific explanation and demonstration of why and how patients’ thoughts and feelings have a significant impact on the outcomes of surgical and other medical interventions. Complementary therapies, such as yoga, meditation, and massage focus on increasing self-awareness, lowering the stress response, thereby lowering heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, and the production and circulation of neurochemicals affecting our mind-body system. These complementary and alternative therapies are being researched and found to positively affect individuals’ health. In the future, when a health care provider suggests that you pay a visit to a local yoga studio to develop long-term relief for lower back pain, or that you work with a psychologist on visualization to help you recover more quickly from planned surgery, you might consider following through with using Western medical care in addition to complementary techniques. After all, not only is the leg bone connected to the ankle bone, but the mind is connected to the body.