The mind-body connection is a two-way street
The concept of the psychosomatic, psychophysiologic, or mindbody process is often misunderstood. This is definitely not to say that the pain you’re experiencing or your problem is make-believe. We’re not saying that you’re creating your pain for some pernicious purpose, or that it has no physiologic basis. What we are saying is that the mind and the body are really a whole entity with interactions and connections, so that what’s going on in your emotions, in your mind, and in your brain is constantly affecting how your body feels and vice versa.
The modern term we tend to see most often is psychophysiologic: mind and body. We also use the term psychosomatic—we’re kind of going back and forth from the Latin and Greek—with psyche being mind or emotions and soma being body. The generic American term is mindbody. All three of these terms refer to the same fundamental mind and body connection.
Conceptually, mind and body were separated in Western medicine hundreds of years ago. This mind-body dualism was in part because of certain predilections of the Catholic church in Europe, and in part because of a desire to divide psychiatry from medicine, and to separate the spiritual from the physical. These historical decisions and priorities have led Western medicine somewhat astray. Eastern medicine and Eastern philosophy have always been a bit more integrated.
Western medicine has done wonderful things for desperately sick people when it comes to acute and severe illnesses. However, it has sometimes struggled with chronic pain and other conditions, and it still struggles to integrate the emotional and the physical.
We tend to think about connections between the different parts of the body and the brain as being a one-way street. In other words, there are nerves that send painful or pleasurable sensations from your leg, shoulder or neck up to your brain where they’re perceived and processed. But actually, it turns out that the mind-body connection is a two-way street. There is very important research that has come out of UCSF medical school and other institutions which indicates that it’s not just about the sensations coming up to your awareness, it’s also very much what your brain and your nervous system do with those sensations. For example, if something is very frightening to you your brain may respond with that fear and worry; it may amplify those signals that you experience in the form of pain as they go back to your knee or your stomach or your back in this two-way process.
In my mind, understanding this two-way street of signals is fundamental to understanding how your emotional response, mental attitude, and belief system can impact what’s going on in terms of what you’re feeling in your extremities or your back or elsewhere in the body.
“It is precisely in this interplay between the mind and body, the area where our understanding of physiology is the murkiest, that pain and our reaction to it exist.”
– Dr. David Schechter, Think Away Your Pain
Emotions may appear to be ephemeral and insubstantial, but in fact, emotions are interrelated with chemicals in the body. If you get really excited or animated about something, you’ll get a release of adrenaline or cortisol. These hormones that are released in the adrenal gland affect your body; they also affect your mind and your focus. We all know how we sometimes get more energized when we experience excitement or fear. I can recall some medical school interviews that I had decades ago—afterwards it was as if I had total recollection of what went on during an interview because I was so energized and adrenalized that my memory centers were essentially locked in the moment. On the other hand, we can all think of situations where the opposite happened. Maybe we were over-energized, perhaps we met an attractive person that we were interested in during our single days, and we stammered all over our words and couldn’t focus in on anything that was being said.
These are just a couple of simple examples of how emotions release different chemicals in the body and affect the neurotransmitters in the brain, leading to changes in both our physical state and our perception of different physical signals especially pain, as well as our mental alertness, focus, fear, and worry. And all of this is connected. That’s why I like to put the words mind and body together in one word: I really considered the mindbody to be part and parcel of the same thing.
Learn more about Dr. David Schechter’s approach to mind-body medicine in our online meditation course.