by Sari Roth-Roemer, Ph.D.

The mind-body connection means that our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes can positively or negatively affect our biological functioning. In other words, our minds can affect how healthy our bodies are. Conversely, what we do with our physical body, such as what we eat, how much we exercise and even our posture, can positively or negatively impact our mental state. This results in a complex interrelationship between our minds and bodies, often referred to as “The Mind/Body Connection.”

Have you ever noticed how your body feels when you are stressed? Or how your mood is when you are sick in bed or hurting? Have you ever noticed that when one feels bad, so does the other? It is not uncommon for me to ask a patient, “Where do you tend to keep your stress in your body?” It is equally as common for me to get back a blank stare of “What the heck are you talking about?” 

At first I found that response astonishing. The more I encountered it, however, the more I realized that many of us are a little disconnected. We feel sick; we take a pill. We feel sad; we toughen up and plow through it anyway. Surprisingly, a number of us see the body and the mind as separate entities, and therefore, one would not affect the other. But is that really so?

It is now generally accepted that our heads don’t just sit on top of our shoulders. Our brain is actually intricately connected into every organ system in our body via our central nervous system. What happens above, in the head, happens below, in the body; what happens below, in the body, happens above, in the head. We are just wired that way. 

When we are stressed and worried or sad and overwhelmed, neurochemical activity in the brain signals a cascade of hormonal and other physiologic changes, pulling the body out of homeostatic balance. The mental turns physical and we get sick.  In this kind of “Mind-Down” approach, we see that stress equals illness. Psychological distress like worry, fear, anxiety and depression literally put strain on our physical body. Our immune systems weaken, our inflammatory response heightens, and we become at increased risk for illness and injury. The good news is that calm and contentment can equal wellbeing. When we relax, meditate or focus on positive experiences, our immune systems strengthen and our resiliency and responses to stressful circumstances improve. 

At the same time, when we view our health from the “Body-Up” perspective, we observe that things like inactivity, poor nutrition and lack of sleep can lead to worsened mood, lowered motivation and poorer functioning in our lives. Conversely, engaging in a regular exercise routine, choosing healthy foods to eat and getting enough sleep can help people feel on top of their games – happy and productive. Ask any runner, swimmer or biker about their mood when they’ve had to stop playing their sport because of an injury. Better yet, stand 10 feet away when you ask them, ‘cuz they won’t be happy.

It goes both directions, too. For example, we have tendency toward high blood pressure, and we get a high blood pressure reading. We worry about this high reading and our blood pressure increases; we get anxious, shaky, short of breath and our hearts begin to pound. We realize what’s happening. We purposely slow our breath and tell ourselves it’s okay; we can help ourselves by calming down. Miraculously, our blood pressure lowers.

So what does this really mean? While we may not have complete control over our health, we do have more control than we give ourselves credit for. Be honest now. What do you do when you are stressed? Do you take really good care of yourself, eat well, rest well, exercise and meditate? Or do you stay up late, eat junky comfort food, sit on the couch and worry about how stressed you are? Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, but sadly, we tend not to do the things that will help us cope when we need it the most. And when we don’t, we put ourselves at risk. Remembering to take care of ourselves during times of stress can make all the difference between sickness and health.

Simple tools to manage your health from top to bottom:

• Pay attention to the choices you make about food, exercise, work, etc.

• Choose wisely.

• Take time for yourself. Book a massage, plan a getaway, etc.

• Let go of anger and resentment that is holding you back.

• Take time to laugh, love and forgive. 

• Seek support from trusted friends, family or consult with a professional. 

• Discover ways to focus on the good things in your life and celebrate them.

• Say kind, encouraging words to yourself.

• When the pressure mounts, breathe slowly and deeply.

Sari Roth-Roemer, Ph.D is a Medical Psychologist and director of Intuitive Psychology, PLC in Scottsdale, Arizona.