Many of us frequently experience the connection between our state of mind and our physical health. Often, that comes in the form of mental stress impacting how we feel.
"A cheerful face is nearly as good for the individual as healthy weather," said Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).
"True enjoyment comes from activity of the mind and exercise of the body; the two are ever united," stated Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1959).
Over 200 years ago, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander von Humboldt noticed the connection between our state of mind and our physical health. Whether we are aware of it or not, many of us frequently experience this connection. For example, have you ever found yourself feeling that you were on the verge of becoming sick or tired - and decided to fight it? Probably, you kept telling yourself over and over, "I don't feel sick" or "I don't have time to be tired."
What happened next? My guess is that some of you went on to become sick or tired and others did not. While there are physical factors such as genetics, our immune system, and overall physical health that can account for this difference, other factors, including our emotional state and beliefs about health and illness, come into play as well.
For many years, scientists have noted the "placebo effect." A placebo is defined as any treatment that does nothing to alleviate symptoms or disease, but somehow causes an effect. The effect results from the patient's belief in the medicine's efficacy, not from the medicine itself. What happens is this: While testing the effectiveness of a certain drug, one group of patients is given the drug, the other a placebo, which is often a sugar pill. At the end of the trial period, the group receiving the placebo experiences an improvement in symptoms or, on the other hand, feels worse or suffers side effects.
Studies show that between 60 to 90 percent of all physician visits are for stress-related complaints. For over 30 years, Dr. Herbert Benson, the founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston and author of The Relaxation Response (2000), has studied how mind/body medicine can help treat stress-related conditions, including joint pain, hypertension, diabetes, migraine headaches, asthma, and allergies. Dr. Benson explains that stressful thoughts lead to the secretion of stress hormones that impede our natural healing capabilities. These hormones send the body into a state of arousal, causing metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and muscle tension to increase. The relaxation response - which produces a physical state of deep rest - is a simple breathing and concentration technique that is practiced for only 10 - 20 minutes a day. Dr. Benson's research shows that it reduces the harmful effects of the stress hormones.
What are some other ways to combat stress? Regular physical exercise helps. Yoga and meditation do, too. Although these methods are effective, they can take time and money for instruction and often may not be practical in the midst of a stressful situation.
So what else can we do? First, stop and take a deep breath - or two or even three! Turn your focus toward using the mind-body connection to produce a positive effect. For example, try using affirmations on a regular basis. Or, practice mindfulness.
Affirmations are a way of turning negative self- talk, which leads to stress, into positive, life-affirming statements. They are always stated in the present tense - I am, I have, I choose - and they reflect what we wish to experience. Think back to what we say when we might be getting sick or feeling tired: "I don't feel sick" or "I don't have time to be sick." What do both of these statements have in common? They are negative and focus on what we do not want to happen.
More positive and effective statements are, "I feel energetic and healthy," or "I am relaxed and have plenty of time to do what needs to be done." At first it may feel silly to state over and over the exact opposite of what you are feeling. But with regular practice, you will notice a change. The inner world of your thoughts and feelings will be in line with the outer world of your experience. Your mind and body will work together to produce a positive result.
In her book Emotional Alchemy, Tara Bennett-Goleman (2001) describes mindfulness as a "meditative awareness that cultivates the capacity to see things just as they are from moment to moment." In other words, we become fully aware, in a nonjudgmental way, of our thoughts, body sensations, and feelings as we experience them. For example, when you are showering, instead of allowing your mind to wander and worry about the busy day ahead, focus on the sensation of the water and the smell of the soap. When walking from the parking lot to your office, instead of anticipating the piles of paperwork you must wade through, listen to the sounds of your feet touching the pavement, smell the air, and feel the warmth of the sun. By practicing mindfulness regularly, we can live in the moment, feel content and peaceful, and experience joy in the process of doing all that we do. We use our minds to produce the positive results that we want.
Children can teach us a lot about living in the moment and practicing affirmations. Time and time again, in a classroom or on a playground, I have noticed how children approach whatever they are doing with joy and how they focus intently on their involvement. When they feel ready to do something else, they turn their attention and energy to that. Take a moment or two to watch young children during the day, and see if you notice this as well.
A while ago, my 13-year-old niece, Melanie, was visiting me. I was having a particularly stressful day. I found myself saying to her over and over, "This is ending up to be a really bad day." Finally, she turned to me and said, "Whenever I wake up and think it is going to be a bad day, I tell myself over and over it is a good day. And before you know it, it really is." I learned an important lesson from Melanie that day.
Bennett-Goleman, T. 2001. Emotional alchemy: How the mind can heal the heart. Nevada City, CA: Harmony Books.
Benson, H. & M.Z. Klippur. 2000. The relaxation response. Rev. ed. New York: Harper Torch.
Robin Brocato, Guest Editor, is a Health Specialist at the Head Start Bureau.
Head Start Bulletin
Issue No. 75
by Robin Brocato
Page last reviewed on January 24, 2014