It's All in the Head....And in the Body: Harnessing the Power of the Body-Mind Connection for Deeper Healing
Nov 29, 2016 11:15PM
● By Alison Shaw
The term “psychosomatic” used to imply that something was wrong. It’s been used to suggest that unexplained physical symptoms are generated by the mind (“it’s all in your head”) and has implied that this reflects some kind of pathology. This interpretation is consistent with a core assumption in western medicine beginning in the 1600s when French philosopher René Descartes declared that the body and the mind (and soul) were separate and independent. It stood to reason then that if one was affecting the other there must be crossed wires in a person’s psyche. As this philosophy took hold, medical science developed independent of psychology and the realms of spirit.
In the past half century, medical research has begun to disprove this assumption and to break down the stigma associated with the term “psycho (mind) somatic(body)”. Research has shown that long periods of emotions like grief and anger can have negative effects on the functioning of the heart and immune system for example. Science established long ago, beginning with the work of Hans Selye in the 1960s, that emotional stress negatively effects many of the body’s systems; the cardiovascular, endocrine and gastrointestinal, to name a few. Many healthcare institutions now include stress management and lifestyle practices such as mindfulness meditation as accepted and important approaches to health and wellness.
But medicine and science are evolving even further and are on the brink of a new and tremendously exciting era ushered in by the discoveries of psychoneuroimmunology: the study of the interactions between the mind, nervous system and endocrine system. Research in this field has established that there are direct and healthy biological processes linking emotions, thoughts and the body not just at times of stress, but in every moment. Now there is evidence that body-mind medicine must expand way beyond stress management because it’s not just stress that affects the organs and systems.
In her book The Molecules of Emotion, Dr. Candace Pert explains that informational substances (like neurotransmitters and hormones) are released not just from the brain but from many organs throughout the body that create changes in every cell in the body in response to every thought and feeling. Organs, tissues and cells are changing chemically and electrically in response to conscious and unconscious thoughts, emotions and moods in every moment.
This tremendously powerful discovery means that every individual has the ability to affect their own physiology and to promote healing, or perpetuate dis-ease. By becoming aware of how physiology is affected by patterns of thinking, ways of dealing with emotions, moods and even by unconscious beliefs about one’s self and the world, it’s possible to release both body and mind from these potentially restricting patterns and learn to develop bodymind patterns that promote health and healing.
This can look like becoming aware of held breath at times of fear or tense shoulders and jaw muscles when anger is not expressed, or collapse and fatigue during times of sadness. By identifying how the body is literally sculpting our psychological state, new choices can be made that will increase balance, freedom and healing both physically and emotionally.
In addition to working directly with the body-mind interaction in a moment, it can be even more useful to identify the more hidden, long-held patterns that develop in early childhood as unconscious ways of responding to life. Everyone develops these early body-mind patterns that run in the background, much like apps on a phone that drain the battery and interfere with the phone’s speed and functioning.
Mindfulness, imagery, self reflection and practices like yoga, tai chi and qigong are all wonderful ways of connecting to our body-mind relationship. More and more therapies that work with the mind and body together are available that offer professional guidance in uncovering body-mind habits and regaining balance and freedom. Most people understand the importance of lifestyle management and self care: eating well, exercising and managing stress. But these new discoveries of the intimate and constant relationship between body and mind allow us to go a step further to resolve and avoid the internal imbalances that contribute to physical and emotional disease.
We should take back the term “psychosomatic” as a label of respect for our wholeness and empowerment to heal ourselves through conscious exploration of our psyche’s intricate (and healthy) relationship with our physiology. Humans are psycho-somatic (mind-body) beings, a fact that puts healing and disease prevention in the palm of our own hands and allows us to become more powerful partners with our healthcare practitioners in the quest for health and wellness.
Alison Shaw is a holistic nurse practitioner, integrative therapist and founder of Bodymind Repatterning, located at The Center for Body Mind Integration, 109 Massachusetts Ave., Lexington. She helps people further their healing by discovering and resolving the hidden body-mind patterns beneath illness and pain. In-person and telephone sessions are available. For more information, call 781-646-0686 or visit BodymindRepatterning.org.