Your Body and Mind: Keys to Overall Health

Sraddha Helfrich
University Of Minnesota Medical Student

Does the thought of vegan chocolate cake ever make you salivate? Does the idea of giving a speech make your stomach churn and palms sweat? Has a memory of a beloved ever made your heart race? The examples above demonstrate the mind-body connection. This connection acknowledges that the thoughts that we choose, and how we respond to life’s events, can manifest in our physical body as bad health. Likewise, what we do with our body can have a huge effect on our mind and our emotions. The mind-body relationship is extremely important in our daily life because it can directly affect our immune system and our body’s ability to heal itself. The immune system is responsible for preventing a virus, bacteria or fungi from creating a diseased state in our body.

The immune system is able to recognize foreign particles and coordinate body functions to destroy them. If our immune system is strong, we do not fall sick and our body is better able to defend itself from disease-causing pathogens. However, if our immune system is weak, we are easy prey to viruses and bacteria. Do you find yourself getting sick every time you are under stress? This is a demonstration of the mind-body connection. Stress causes the immune system to be less effective and less likely to resist disease. Researchers have identified that cortisol, a molecule whose production is determined by messenger molecules from the brain and depresses immune function, plays a role in stress.

Experiments on students who are under stress also demonstrate that cuts on their skin heal much more slowly when they are under stress. Stress is scientifically acknowledged to be associated with many of our modern day illnesses and alleviating stress often eases our symptoms. Heart health and blood pressure suffer as stress increases. Many other conditions are exacerbated by stress: acne, certain viral flare-ups and migraines. Depression is also a negative mental state that literally “depresses” our bodies ability to heal itself. It is associated with many problems including complications in pregnancy and weight problems. Managing stress and depression helps us to live happier and more fulfilling lives. Clearly, our mental state affects our physical state. While mental afflictions can impede physical health, a chronic physical disease can affect mental outlook causing emotional ills such as anxiety, depression or loneliness. Thus, it is important to be a positive presence in the lives of those who are suffering from chronic diseases and to support those who are going through difficult phases in their life.

We should all aim to be beacons of positivity for those in our lives. Our positive energy can not only help heal parts of other people’s lives, but we can also use our positive energy to heal ourselves. Mind-body medicine focuses on techniques that can provide patients with a positive psychological effect, which in turn results in lessened disease symptoms. The scientific name for this type of medicine is psychoneuroimmunology, in which “psycho” refers to the mind, “neuro” refers to the brain and nervous system, and “immunology” refers to the body’s response to infections and disease. Therapies may be used to help boost the body’s infection-fighting abilities. These therapies include meditation, visual imagery and group support that improve mental outlook while diminishing anger, pessimism, or anxiety.

Acupuncture, herbal medicine, yoga, t’ai chi, and other physical activities may also be used. Food is also a pivotal part of our mental and physical health. Meals, at their best, should be positive social and spiritual experiences. Take the time to cook fresh meals and share the experience with loved ones. Eat foods that are free from violence and exploitation. A vegan diet is ideal, but if this is not possible, adopt a vegetarian diet that focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables. I have personally met people whose entire mental and physical state has changed for the better after adopting a raw foods diet. It is clear to see how a negative spiral of illness can occur. Negative thoughts feed ill health and ill health feeds negative thoughts.

So the trick is to make our lives an upward spiral of positive thoughts and good health. One study suggests that optimists live longer lives and fall sick less often. While we are constantly bombarded with images of “ideal physical health,” we need to also aim for “ideal mental health.” Clearly, common sense, ancient wisdom and hard scientific evidence suggest that optimism, patience, peaceful thoughts, and love are what we should aim to exude. Perhaps these are the qualities that the world also needs to heal a wounded humanity.

What You Can Do

Use the Mind/Body connection to your benefit:

* Realize that happiness comes from within and your thoughts define your health.

* Practice yoga. Yoga helps you become more acquainted with your own body-mind responses to various challenges.

* Cultivate positive relationships with people, animals and the earth.

* Do not spend time with negative people. They are literally not good for your health.

* Identify negative thought patterns and work consciously to rid yourself of them. Free yourself of criticism, whether it be of yourself or other people. Do not let your mind be prey to greed, anger, jealousy, perfectionism, material attachment, violence, haste and hatred.

* Do breathing exercises daily. Breathing consciously often may help you calm down and relax.

* Meditate daily. There are many different types of meditation to explore: transcendental, Buddhist, mindfulness, vipassana.

* Pay attention to your body and its functions so you can detect and treat early on for illnesses and ailments.

* Count to ten before you react emotionally to any situation. Spend a few moments thinking about the situation logically.

* Be optimistic. If you point yourself upward, you will go up!

* Be involved in the community, take part in community projects and work for what you believe.

* Give to others more than you receive, but maintain personal balance in terms of time, support and love.

* Exercise. Getting that body moving is often a good antidote to the blues.

* Laugh frequently. Laughter helps to cultivate a positive world view.

* Take time to enjoy the small details in life: a bird flying across the sky, a flower, a child’s laughter.

* Simplify your life. See: HEALTH: Simple Living.

* Acknowledge that Cartesian dualism of mind and body is an inaccurate way of viewing yourself and your health. You are a whole person. You should monitor all parts of your “self”: your body, mind, spirit, emotions and social well-being.

See Also: Arts: Stress

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