When we think about well-being, it’s easy to compartmentalize the various components, especially physical and mental health. After all, most modern healthcare systems are set up that way — primary care providers tend to examine your physical health, while we leave mental healthcare up to different types of professionals. But no bodily function exists in a bubble, and the two are deeply intertwined: This is the mind-body connection.
What is the mind-body connection?
The mind-body connection is the concept that your thoughts and feelings can impact your biological functioning. In other words, your mental health and well-being are tied to your physical health.
You might not have explicitly thought about this phenomenon before, but everyone has experienced this connection one way or another. A lack of appetite in the wake of grief, an upset stomach due to nervousness, and getting poor sleep during stressful periods are all examples of the mind-body connection. Of course, those are all negative examples, but there are plenty of positive impacts of the mind-body connection, too.
The link between your mind and body is a key principle of holistic medicine, an approach to healing that focuses on the entire person rather than a set of symptoms or a single diagnosis.
The science behind the mind-body connection
Evidence of the mind-body connection can be found in numerous studies. One of the most popular modern studies of this connection was conducted in the 1980s among a group of women undergoing treatment for metastatic breast cancer. Researchers at Stanford University found that the women who participated in group therapy sessions along with their medical treatment had a better quality of life, less pain, and lived longer.
At the time, the mind-body connection wasn’t extensively studied, and these findings made headlines in the scientific community. Further studies, like analyzing how the mind-body connection can be used to treat illnesses, followed in subsequent years. While the results haven’t always been as clear as the Stanford study, scientists have discovered similar findings. For example, a 2006 study found that cognitive behavioral therapy enhanced the effectiveness of medical treatments on HIV-positive men.
It’s important to note that mental therapies aren’t effective substitutes for traditional medicine; of course, someone with diabetes wouldn’t do well with ditching their insulin for hot yoga. Rather, mental therapies can add to the effectiveness of other treatment types.
Types of mind-body therapies
The examples listed above are just a quick glimpse into the research on the mind-body connection. In the last 40 years, hundreds of studies have shown the effectiveness of various mental therapies on physical health. Some of these healing practices include:
- Group therapy and support groups
- Qi-gong (often includes guided imagery, breathwork, meditations, and postures)
- Tai chi
- Art therapy (including visual arts, dance, and music therapy)
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
Beyond the practices listed above, any kind of self-care activity can be good for your mental health if it relieves stress — from journaling to HIIT workouts.
The impact of stress on physical health
With so many types of ailments and therapeutic practices, the research possibilities are endless. But one of the core tenets of the mind-body connection is the effect of stress on physical health.
Studies have shown that exposure to stressful situations can increase white blood cell count. White blood cells are the body’s defense against disease, but too much of them can cause plaque buildup in the arteries, which may lead to heart attacks and strokes.
Some suspect that the impact of chronic stress is one factor behind the reality that a lower income tends to correlate to a shorter lifespan. A 2006 study in the United Kingdom found that workers in low-level jobs with high stress and little autonomy have more than double the risk of developing metabolic syndrome — a precursor to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes — compared with employees in higher-level jobs.
Connecting the dots
Ironically, after learning about the mind-body connection, it’s natural to feel anxious about how your mental health may impact your lifespan. But don’t worry: It’s impossible to completely eliminate stress, and that’s not the goal of mindfulness or any other mind-body healing technique. There are plenty of ways to incorporate mind-body techniques into your wellness routine.
You might start with a five-minute meditation each day, then increase the duration and frequency as you grow accustomed to the practice and start noticing benefits. Or maybe you take a break from work or school to stretch or doodle with a pencil and paper. Listen to your mind and body and lean into whatever practice makes you feel good.