The Mind-Body Connection
By Hannah Root, MA, LPCC, NCC
“Every minute of every day, your body is physically reacting, literally changing, in response to the thoughts that run through your mind.” - Debbie Hampton
What is this mind-body connection, anyway? This new buzz phrase has been passed around enough to gain notable attention in mainstream media and scientific laboratories. Scientists have begun studying this connection between the mind and the body and found impactful results that we can now harness in our daily lives. But what is it, really?
The human mind, we are learning, has the ability to dramatically impact how the body functions, feels and looks. We aren’t talking about the regions of the brain that control our motor function or our heart beat. We are looking at how the consiously-aware mind, different from the brain, can impact our physical experience with a thought.
An example of the mind’s influence on the body you may be more familiar with is the placebo effect. When I am so exhausted and am craving a hot cup of coffee my mind starts to fantasize about the taste, the sensation, the aroma. From a mid-afternoon zombie with no energy to offer the store clerk a smile, when the idea of a well-caffeinated drink pops into my mind, I start to have a little more pep in my step. The second the barista hands me my black-gold, I can feel dopamine flooding my system. Without even taking my first sip, I am less irritable, I’m relaxed yet alert and you sure bet I have enough energy to flash a quick smile as I leave the counter. What’s going on here?
Scientists have found that the thought about an experience stimulates the same areas with the same intensity in the brain as the actual event. My thinking about the coffee is releasing physical chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. These important chemicals are signaling millions of actions within my body which control my emotional state, energy levels and overall physical experience. All with a thought!
Placebos have been associated with trickery. An outside influencer tricking the recipient into having a physical experience. Let’s re-work this narrative to recognize the power we can harness with our own minds, which is really what placebos have unearthed.
The coffee example is a relatable one for most. Whether it’s coffee, a sweet treat or our favorite TV show, we can all think of a pleasurable experience that when we simply think about it we immediately feel better. Seeing the impact a thought has on the body, where in your day-to-day life can you employ this powerful tool?
A place in my own life I have found this understanding of the mind-body connection to be hugely impactful has been my energy level throughout the day. I noticed when I began the day saying in my mind or out-loud how exhausted I was, I was slugging through my day, unable to snap out of the trance no matter how much coffee or sugar I consumed. After hearing about the mental “set-up” I was creating in the morning and how it can physically change how my body behaves during the day, I decided to try a little experiment.
A key here for me was to remain genuine, and not lie to myself, or trick myself, but to be honest with this new approach. To give this mini-experiment a try, I began each morning by saying mentally or aloud what I was looking forward to in the day ahead, the beauty of the morning light in my bedroom or even just staying “good morning” to myself. The goal for this mental re-set was to create a positive association with waking up, the morning time and the day ahead instead of immediately telling my body how exhausted I was before my feet hit the ground.
Over a period of a few weeks, I noticed I was in a better mood throughout the day. I started to crave less stimulants, I was more engaged mentally at work, my new mental “set-up” in the morning was changing the way I was experiencing my physical reality. This is when I learned, my thoughts and my words are powerful!
This can be a lot to hold, recognizing we are responsible for our physical experience in a big way that even science is supporting to be true. So, start off small. Find a small corner of your mental narrative where you could re-script a “set-up” to impact your physical experience. Commit to a few weeks of this new mental framing and watch the physical impact unfold.
“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” - Lao Tzu