By: Brian Bernier, ND
The brain is not the mind.
Whether this is a new concept for you, or whether you already knew this, it is something that is important to reflect upon when talking about the impact that mental health has on physical health, and the other way around.
The “brain” is actually not even localized to only the head. The brain is actually spread throughout the entire body through the nervous system. While many connections located in the brain perform higher cognitive functions and are more associated with our view of ourselves (like personality or the concept of self), the nervous system at every level ‘thinks’ and communicates these thoughts with other parts of the body.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is well understood that grief affects the lungs. We acknowledge this in western medicine because we know that emotional states can induce panic attacks which manifest as respiratory dysfunction – rapid heart beats and shallow breaths. These are just 2 simple examples of health going beyond the materialistic model in which we tend to look at it.
The mind-body connection is so strong that it is actually the standard upon which all pharmaceutical drugs have to compare themselves to! Studies have shown that people without knowledge of the mind-body connection can elicit the same effect some medications produce on people. This is known as the Placebo Effect.
When a negative result is produced by the mind-body connection, it is called the Nocebo effect. If you have ever experienced food poisoning, recovered, but months later felt hesitant or queasy when thinking about the food that gave you food poisoning, that is an example of the Nocebo Effect.
For the Placebo (positive) Effect, research has shown that a person completely unaware of the mind-body connection can produce a positive effect on their health 30% of the time! Some studies show placebo being as high as 60% effective. This means by taking a fake pill and thinking it will help you, 1 of every 3 people actually experience a real physiological improvement in their health!
In medicine, the mind-body connection is often ignored for treatment because it is difficult to measure and is not easily changed, especially not in a 15 minute consult. Making impactful changes in the mind-body connection requires addressing a problem in multiple ways, and uniquely for each patient. Allopathic medicine relies heavily upon protocols. Other medicine systems do not regard protocols as being the most useful in more complex or chronic cases. Chronic diseases are endemic to USA. According to national sources such as the CDC and National Health Council, half of America suffers from Chronic disease, a disease classified by an illness that lasts 3 months or more and impairs life. The CDC reports that nearly 30% of Americans suffer from more than 1 chronic disease.
Knowing something about the mind-body connection now, what should you do? Here are 5 simple steps you can begin to do today that may help you achieve your health goals.
1. Pick a target! – You cannot reach a goal if the goal is never set. You need to physically write down what your health goals are, and thoughts you have that impede you from pursuing and achieving those health goals
2. Expect positive results! – When dealing with chronic disease, feeling sad and unmotivated can easily happen. You need to dig deep and recognize that no matter what state of health you are in, quality of life can ALWAYS be improved! You can always be in a better state by finding ways to reduce your suffering. You may not find the therapy that alleviates all your symptoms, or even any of your symptoms, but being sad and unmotivated does nothing to improve your condition. Why not go into the situation hoping to find some relief? At worst, you will learn what does not help, which is still progress.
3. Train your mind – We are not conscious of all the influences that lead us to make certain decisions, think a particular way, feel a particular way, or behave a particular way. Learning more about yourself – via psychology specifically, is a great way to learn more about yourself. If you do not want to read and spend time learning about yourself, then go see a psychologist. Have a session done. It is incredibly therapeutic for the mind. Since none of us live in a vacuum absent influences, it is worth learning more about how those influences are manifesting in our lives.
4. Exercise/Play! – The amount of neurological activity involved in playing/moving is beyond anyone’s ability to explain. Not only do we experience all sorts of positive neurotransmitters from playing, but we learn to better integrate our nervous systems with our physical body by moving/playing. We become more coordinated, more in control of our bodies, fine-tuning the mind-body connection.
5. Unplug – We have become inundated with technology. This causes us to spend less time in self-dialogue, less self-talk, and has us engaged more with social-self-talk. When at home, no longer are we around a close-knit group of people or alone, but the thoughts, actions, behaviors of others are constantly around us and there is no way to shut off the brain. So, the best thing you can do is take a hiatus every now and then. Get away from social media, tv, anything that exposes you to the thoughts of others for a bit, and just listen to yourself. Notice your breathing patterns. How strong or soft is your heartbeat? Observe your emotions. Are you treating yourself as you would a dear friend who you were responsible for?
National Health Council
Raghupathi, W., & Raghupathi, V. (2018). An empirical study of chronic diseases in the United States: a visual analytics approach to public health. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(3), 431.
Wager, T. D., & Atlas, L. Y. (2015). The neuroscience of placebo effects: connecting context, learning and health. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(7), 403-418.