The Mind Body Connection

by Farzana Rahman

Mind and body is a phrase monopolised by yoga teachers and alternative medicine practitioners but rarely used in the day-to-day vernacular of modern medicine. Yet ask any clinician if they see the effects of the mind-body connection in their day-to-day practice and they will answer with a resounding yes. 

As a junior doctor, one of my bosses (a surgeon) would often say that he could spot the patients who were likely to get complications when they first walked into his clinic, way before an operation. This wasn’t because of predisposing conditions but attitude. He was sure that patients who had a positive attitude fared better post-operatively. Of course, this was difficult to accurately measure and predict. Designing a study to look at this, whilst controlling other variables, was near impossible. Yet, time and time again I’ve heard similar anecdotes from different clinicians.


Definition of the Mind-Body Connection

The mind-body connection refers to how the mind influences the body and its functions.  When we refer to the ‘mind’, we are talking about a variety of mental states, which include our thoughts, beliefs and emotions. These mental states can be both conscious but also (and perhaps more importantly) subconscious. As we all know, different mental states can positively or negatively affect underlying biological functions. Remember how Tony Robbins would famously get his course attendees so pumped up that they could walk across hot coals without getting burnt ? Or the nauseous feeling that that some of us have when we’re stressed ? These are just some of the countless examples that show the inextricable link between the mind and body.


The Psychology Behind the Mind-Body Connection

Different emotions are linked to different parts of the brain. In turn, these emotions can affect various neural processes and pathways. The pathways connect the parts of our brain that generate emotions with other parts of our bodies such as the digestive tract or cardiovascular system.  Rossi and Cheek (1988)  put forward the idea that neuropeptides and receptors join the brain, glands and immune system in a system which represents the 'substrate of emotion'. This explains why we might feel our heart racing when under pressure or butterflies in our stomach when we’re nervous.


The Mind Body Connection, Modern Medicine and Ancient Traditions

Traditions such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine are rooted in the belief that the mind is an integral part of disease healing. The roots of modern medicine were also grounded in this belief. However, as the knowledge base grew in the Enlightened and Renaissance periods, it is not surprising that holistic concepts faded into the background as information became more granular.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on the philosophy that the mind and body are inseparable. The goal of techniques such as acupuncture and herbal medicine is to bring balance to the mind and body of the patient. In TCM, it is believed that some parts of body have more energetic properties while others have more material characteristics.

Ayurvedic tradition is also rooted in similar beliefs.  Ayurvedic wisdom dictates that bringing the mind into balance helps bring balance to the body. Diet, yoga and meditation are tools used in ayurvedic practice to bring awareness to the mind. Meditation in particular helps to create a state of relaxed awareness, which can reduce stress and bring the body into equilibrium. Studies have demonstrated that meditation can reduce the heart and respiratory rate and decrease the production of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Meditation can also increase the production of well-being neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins.


Going Forward

The field of mind body medicine is growing - famous institutions such as Georgetown University and Massachusetts General Hospital now have their own centers for mind body research. The emerging research about mindfulness and its effects on disease outcomes is fascinating – we’ll continue to read and blog about this !


Mind–Body Therapy: Methods of Ideodynamic Healing in Hypnosis. By Ernest Lawrence Rossi and David B. Cheek. London: W. W. Norton & Co. 1988. 519 pp.