The Mind-body Connection: It's Not Just in Your Head

Reviewed Apr 26, 2017

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Summary

Your moods matter, not just to your mental health but to your physical health as well.

Humans have always sensed that their physical health was tied in some way to what goes on in their mind—moods, stress, joy, grief, optimism, despair. Old sayings tell us we can “worry ourselves sick” or “die of a broken heart.” Eastern medical traditions have long put stress on the work of the mind in healing. In the West, Hippocrates, some 2,400 years ago, said attitude played a key role in healing.

Mind-body science advances

In later centuries, Western medicine mostly ignored the role of mental states in the prevention and treatment of disease. Since the 1960s, however, researchers have been looking at the mind-body connection more closely and with more respect. They have seen it at work in many illnesses. Just as significantly, they are starting to learn how it works.

Mind-body science has been advancing on two fronts, dealing with cause and cure. In one direction, researchers are looking at how one’s mental condition may lead to disease and early death, or to physical health and longer life. In the other, they are studying mind-body therapies that can be used to treat various diseases.

Proof of a connection

Scientists have found plenty of data linking certain beliefs and emotions with physical ailments, especially heart disease. A report in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology says a number of emotional and social factors promote heart disease. These include depression, isolation, poverty, stress in work or marriage, and the emotional strains experienced by caregivers.

A sunny outlook also seems to help the body ward off less dreaded diseases. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says studies suggest that the tendency to report positive rather than negative emotions may be associated with greater resistance to colds.

Gaining an understanding of the links

Researchers are also learning about the physical mechanisms that might link disease to emotions. With the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they have identified areas of the brain that are active during meditation. These areas also appear to control the autonomic nervous system, which influences circulation, breathing, digestion, and other physical functions in response to stress. The same fMRI work suggests that meditation may boost immunity.

Other research has shown that stress or a change of mood affects the production of certain enzymes that play a role in wound healing. And researchers from the University of California at San Francisco have found what they believe to be a direct link between chronic stress and premature aging of cells. Among a group of women caring for their chronically ill children, those reporting the most stress also had cells in which telomeres—protective structures at the end of chromosomes that allow them to divide—were shriveling up faster than normal.

Run (or relax) for the cure

Just as the harm of chronic stress, depression, and anxiety is well documented, so are the helpful effects of mood-lifting or stress-reducing techniques. Mind-body therapies (MBTs)—including relaxation, cognitive behavior therapies, medication, imagery, biofeedback, and hypnosis—have racked up a strong track record. Studies have found them helpful in treating coronary artery disease, headaches, insomnia, incontinence, chronic low back pain, and both the disease- and treatment-related symptoms of cancer.

Your emotions matter

What does all this mean for the non-physician? It means that your moods matter, not just to your mental health but to your physical health as well. It should add to the urgency of dealing with emotional illness such as depression or anxiety, because the evidence is mounting that these conditions can lead to physical illness and a shorter life. It should give you further reason to deal with stress in healthy ways, such as regular exercise or relaxing hobbies.

The science is clear: The mind-body connection is not just in your head. It’s real, and your health depends on it.

Resources

NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health https://nccih.nih.gov
 
The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital
www.massgeneral.org/bhi 

By Tom Gray
Source: National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health; John A. Astin, PhD, Shauna L. Shapiro, PhD, David M. Eisenberg, MD, and Kelly L. Forys, MA. “Mind-body medicine: State of the science, implications for practice.” Journal of the American Board of Family Practice, 2003, 16(2):131-147; Erik J. Giltay, Johanna M. Geleijnse, Frans G. Zitman, Tiny Hoekstra, Evert G. Schouten. “Dispositional optimism and all-cause and cardiovascular mortality in a prospective cohort of elderly Dutch men and women.” Archives of General Psychiatry, 2004, 61:1126-1135; Alan Rozanski, MD, FACC, James A. Blumenthal, PhD, Karina W. Davidson, PhD, Patrice G. Saab, PhD, and Laura Kubzansky, PhD. “The epidemiology, pathophysiology, and management of psychosocial risk factors in cardiac practice: The emerging field of behavioral cardiology.” Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2005, 45:637-651.

Summary

Your moods matter, not just to your mental health but to your physical health as well.

Humans have always sensed that their physical health was tied in some way to what goes on in their mind—moods, stress, joy, grief, optimism, despair. Old sayings tell us we can “worry ourselves sick” or “die of a broken heart.” Eastern medical traditions have long put stress on the work of the mind in healing. In the West, Hippocrates, some 2,400 years ago, said attitude played a key role in healing.

Mind-body science advances

In later centuries, Western medicine mostly ignored the role of mental states in the prevention and treatment of disease. Since the 1960s, however, researchers have been looking at the mind-body connection more closely and with more respect. They have seen it at work in many illnesses. Just as significantly, they are starting to learn how it works.

Mind-body science has been advancing on two fronts, dealing with cause and cure. In one direction, researchers are looking at how one’s mental condition may lead to disease and early death, or to physical health and longer life. In the other, they are studying mind-body therapies that can be used to treat various diseases.

Proof of a connection

Scientists have found plenty of data linking certain beliefs and emotions with physical ailments, especially heart disease. A report in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology says a number of emotional and social factors promote heart disease. These include depression, isolation, poverty, stress in work or marriage, and the emotional strains experienced by caregivers.

A sunny outlook also seems to help the body ward off less dreaded diseases. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says studies suggest that the tendency to report positive rather than negative emotions may be associated with greater resistance to colds.

Gaining an understanding of the links

Researchers are also learning about the physical mechanisms that might link disease to emotions. With the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they have identified areas of the brain that are active during meditation. These areas also appear to control the autonomic nervous system, which influences circulation, breathing, digestion, and other physical functions in response to stress. The same fMRI work suggests that meditation may boost immunity.

Other research has shown that stress or a change of mood affects the production of certain enzymes that play a role in wound healing. And researchers from the University of California at San Francisco have found what they believe to be a direct link between chronic stress and premature aging of cells. Among a group of women caring for their chronically ill children, those reporting the most stress also had cells in which telomeres—protective structures at the end of chromosomes that allow them to divide—were shriveling up faster than normal.

Run (or relax) for the cure

Just as the harm of chronic stress, depression, and anxiety is well documented, so are the helpful effects of mood-lifting or stress-reducing techniques. Mind-body therapies (MBTs)—including relaxation, cognitive behavior therapies, medication, imagery, biofeedback, and hypnosis—have racked up a strong track record. Studies have found them helpful in treating coronary artery disease, headaches, insomnia, incontinence, chronic low back pain, and both the disease- and treatment-related symptoms of cancer.

Your emotions matter

What does all this mean for the non-physician? It means that your moods matter, not just to your mental health but to your physical health as well. It should add to the urgency of dealing with emotional illness such as depression or anxiety, because the evidence is mounting that these conditions can lead to physical illness and a shorter life. It should give you further reason to deal with stress in healthy ways, such as regular exercise or relaxing hobbies.

The science is clear: The mind-body connection is not just in your head. It’s real, and your health depends on it.

Resources

NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health https://nccih.nih.gov
 
The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital
www.massgeneral.org/bhi 

By Tom Gray
Source: National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health; John A. Astin, PhD, Shauna L. Shapiro, PhD, David M. Eisenberg, MD, and Kelly L. Forys, MA. “Mind-body medicine: State of the science, implications for practice.” Journal of the American Board of Family Practice, 2003, 16(2):131-147; Erik J. Giltay, Johanna M. Geleijnse, Frans G. Zitman, Tiny Hoekstra, Evert G. Schouten. “Dispositional optimism and all-cause and cardiovascular mortality in a prospective cohort of elderly Dutch men and women.” Archives of General Psychiatry, 2004, 61:1126-1135; Alan Rozanski, MD, FACC, James A. Blumenthal, PhD, Karina W. Davidson, PhD, Patrice G. Saab, PhD, and Laura Kubzansky, PhD. “The epidemiology, pathophysiology, and management of psychosocial risk factors in cardiac practice: The emerging field of behavioral cardiology.” Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2005, 45:637-651.

Summary

Your moods matter, not just to your mental health but to your physical health as well.

Humans have always sensed that their physical health was tied in some way to what goes on in their mind—moods, stress, joy, grief, optimism, despair. Old sayings tell us we can “worry ourselves sick” or “die of a broken heart.” Eastern medical traditions have long put stress on the work of the mind in healing. In the West, Hippocrates, some 2,400 years ago, said attitude played a key role in healing.

Mind-body science advances

In later centuries, Western medicine mostly ignored the role of mental states in the prevention and treatment of disease. Since the 1960s, however, researchers have been looking at the mind-body connection more closely and with more respect. They have seen it at work in many illnesses. Just as significantly, they are starting to learn how it works.

Mind-body science has been advancing on two fronts, dealing with cause and cure. In one direction, researchers are looking at how one’s mental condition may lead to disease and early death, or to physical health and longer life. In the other, they are studying mind-body therapies that can be used to treat various diseases.

Proof of a connection

Scientists have found plenty of data linking certain beliefs and emotions with physical ailments, especially heart disease. A report in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology says a number of emotional and social factors promote heart disease. These include depression, isolation, poverty, stress in work or marriage, and the emotional strains experienced by caregivers.

A sunny outlook also seems to help the body ward off less dreaded diseases. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says studies suggest that the tendency to report positive rather than negative emotions may be associated with greater resistance to colds.

Gaining an understanding of the links

Researchers are also learning about the physical mechanisms that might link disease to emotions. With the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they have identified areas of the brain that are active during meditation. These areas also appear to control the autonomic nervous system, which influences circulation, breathing, digestion, and other physical functions in response to stress. The same fMRI work suggests that meditation may boost immunity.

Other research has shown that stress or a change of mood affects the production of certain enzymes that play a role in wound healing. And researchers from the University of California at San Francisco have found what they believe to be a direct link between chronic stress and premature aging of cells. Among a group of women caring for their chronically ill children, those reporting the most stress also had cells in which telomeres—protective structures at the end of chromosomes that allow them to divide—were shriveling up faster than normal.

Run (or relax) for the cure

Just as the harm of chronic stress, depression, and anxiety is well documented, so are the helpful effects of mood-lifting or stress-reducing techniques. Mind-body therapies (MBTs)—including relaxation, cognitive behavior therapies, medication, imagery, biofeedback, and hypnosis—have racked up a strong track record. Studies have found them helpful in treating coronary artery disease, headaches, insomnia, incontinence, chronic low back pain, and both the disease- and treatment-related symptoms of cancer.

Your emotions matter

What does all this mean for the non-physician? It means that your moods matter, not just to your mental health but to your physical health as well. It should add to the urgency of dealing with emotional illness such as depression or anxiety, because the evidence is mounting that these conditions can lead to physical illness and a shorter life. It should give you further reason to deal with stress in healthy ways, such as regular exercise or relaxing hobbies.

The science is clear: The mind-body connection is not just in your head. It’s real, and your health depends on it.

Resources

NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health https://nccih.nih.gov
 
The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital
www.massgeneral.org/bhi 

By Tom Gray
Source: National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health; John A. Astin, PhD, Shauna L. Shapiro, PhD, David M. Eisenberg, MD, and Kelly L. Forys, MA. “Mind-body medicine: State of the science, implications for practice.” Journal of the American Board of Family Practice, 2003, 16(2):131-147; Erik J. Giltay, Johanna M. Geleijnse, Frans G. Zitman, Tiny Hoekstra, Evert G. Schouten. “Dispositional optimism and all-cause and cardiovascular mortality in a prospective cohort of elderly Dutch men and women.” Archives of General Psychiatry, 2004, 61:1126-1135; Alan Rozanski, MD, FACC, James A. Blumenthal, PhD, Karina W. Davidson, PhD, Patrice G. Saab, PhD, and Laura Kubzansky, PhD. “The epidemiology, pathophysiology, and management of psychosocial risk factors in cardiac practice: The emerging field of behavioral cardiology.” Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2005, 45:637-651.

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