Part 1: The mind-body connection
There's growing scientific evidence that the connection between mind and body is a profound one. Research highlights just how prominently our thoughts, feelings and attitudes can positively or negatively affect our biological functioning - and impact directly on our physical health.
Despite sometimes sounding as though it's a new concept, actually the opposite is true - until a few hundred years ago, most systems of medicine throughout the world treated the mind and body as a whole. Holistic health was key.
The Western world began instead to adopt the perspective that the mind and body were two distinct and separate entities around the 17th century. The body was seen as having independent and replaceable parts, with no connection to the mind whatsoever. This view has had many benefits, and led to huge advances in surgery and pharmaceuticals. However, it also greatly overshadowed scientific research into the emotional and spiritual aspects of humans, and downplayed the significant role they play in our ability to heal.
With the limitations of Western medicine becoming more apparent, a shift back to the holistic concept is emerging, and researchers have begun to scientifically demonstrate profound and complex links between the mind and body. When using the term 'mind', its important to note it doesn't refer to the brain, but to mental states such as thoughts, emotions, beliefs and attitudes. The brain provides the mechanics that allow us to experience these mental states. They can be conscious or unconscious - we can have emotional reactions to situations without being aware of why we are reacting (hence why some habits and behaviour can be so hard to break!).
Each mental state has a physiology associated with it - a positive or negative effect on our biological functioning. This occurs as the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems share a chemical 'language', which allows constant communication between the mind and body through messengers such as hormones and neurotransmitters.
Scientists have created maps of emotions, showing areas of the body that are affected when people experience different emotions. For example, parts of the brain that process emotions are connected with the spinal cord, muscles, cardiovascular and digestive systems. This means major life events, stresses or emotions can trigger very real physical symptoms.
The mind-body connection is apparent when you feel 'butterflies' in your stomach when nervous, a pounding heart when you are under intense stress, or a thumping headache from tension. Other visual examples of this are crying when you are upset, or blushing when embarrassed!
The interaction of the mind and body influences our health, and the development of illness and disease. Emotions like anger, fear, stress and anxiety can manifest within the body and contribute to imbalance and illness. For example, fear can lead to digestive problems and tummy upset. Stress or anxiety can trigger increased stress hormones, which may suppress the immune system, allowing for the development of infections or illness. When it becomes chronic, illness then tips over into disease.
Many forms of energy healing, such as Reiki, refer to our 'vibration' - the aim of treatment being to raise the vibration as much as possible. It's becoming widely known through research that thoughts and emotions actually have vibrations that impact our physiological state.
At a physical level, the body is made up of cells, atoms and subatomic particles, which are constantly vibrating at different rates depending on their biochemical make-up (the specific electrical output of the human heart, for example, can be measured on an ECG (electro-cardiogram) machine). The frequency at which atoms vibrate within a cell influences their structure and function.
Scientific research shows that thoughts, words and feelings can change the structure of atoms and cells, which can change their function. Positive, inspiring thoughts and emotions vibrate in harmony with cells, since they share a similar frequency, allowing them to function optimally.
Amazingly, experiments have found that vibrations or energy patterns carried by emotions are able to cause physical changes in our DNA structure. This affects how the genetic code is translated to make the different proteins that become the building blocks of our bodies.
During one HeartMath Institute study, a participant holding three DNA samples was led into a state of what the researchers termed 'heart coherence' - a beneficial state of mental, emotional and physical balance and harmony - with the aid of heart breathing and intentional positive emotions. The participant then succeeded to intentionally and simultaneously unwind two of the DNA samples to different extents, and leave the third unchanged.
Studies carried out by both the HeartMath Institute and the US Army have demonstrated that the structure of DNA is directly affected by emotions at the same time the emotions are experienced - even when they are outside of the body! In one experiment, DNA samples were taken from donors and stored elsewhere in the building - and in some cases, over 350 miles away. The DNA was observed under a microscope at the same time the participant was subjected to different emotions. The DNA structures relaxed and lengthened at the same time the participants experienced positive emotions, and tightened and shortened as they became fearful, angry or frustrated; in some cases with the DNA codes even switching off.
Often, our thoughts are also expressed as words, which powerfully carry the same energetic vibrations, and are then manifested into action as repeated behaviours, forming habits, which then further impacts our health. This may explain why techniques like positive affirmations and Neuro-Linguistic Programming can have such strong effects on the human body.
The connection between the mind and body is multi-directional. Emotions affect the physiology within our body and the way we behave. Our perception of these emotion-triggered physical changes also influences our conscious emotions, and can create a cycle.
Deep-seated, stuck or repressed belief patterns and emotions appear to be especially harmful to physical health and the development of illness and disease. If not dealt with, they can create imbalances and an underlying sense of anxiety, depression, or anger that can physically disrupt the body’s natural ability to heal itself. Find out how you can consciously improve your health in part 2...