I’ve heard the brain understands issues, and the gut resolves them. If that’s the case, a mind-body connection is crucial to tackle life’s biggest problems. How do I know my mind and body are working together to help me make the best decisions possible?
This is a very exciting question! You are pointing to an area of inquiry that deserves much attention. Mind-body approaches in behavioral medicine have been expanding rapidly over recent decades. It is also my belief that the body is, too often, left out of the psychological vision quest. I believe the body is a sensitive instrument, and like any instrument, it needs to be fine-tuned to function at its best.
Think of the body as an anchor that grounds you to the physical world. French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes “the body is our general medium for having a world.” Your body uses the five senses and houses the brain, heart, and gut, which, among many other energy centers in this body, all act together to enable you to interact with the world.
Spiritually, I see the body as a sacred vessel that carries the spirit, which enables you to behave with grace, and express love, kindness, and compassion toward yourself and others. It is through this embodied divinity that we can work together to bring more freedom, peace, and love into our day-to-day lives.
To address your question, I am going to ground this transpersonal perspective in a physiological take on how the mind, body, and emotions are related when it comes to stress and relaxation. These are two ends of a continuum that I believe are directly tied to your question concerning the optimization of decision making.
When you encounter extremely stressful experiences, such as a psychological trauma, your survival instincts kick in, leading you to either fight, flee, or freeze. This can also show up in how you may choose to disconnect from the immediacy of your experience by using drugs, alcohol, or food to numb yourself. You may wish to escape the numbing by engaging in intense experiences—thrill-seeking behaviors, gambling, high-risk sexual activity, or cutting, to name a few—that generate salient sensations. When you are in a stressed state, the mind-body system is out of balance.
For the purposes of this discussion, a balanced state occurs when the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) – parasympathetic (PNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) – are harmonized. The SNS is the body’s accelerator pedal. Inhalation stimulates the SNS and the body hits the gas, pumping adrenaline to spark action. Just like when driving in traffic, eventually, you need to hit the brakes. This is the job of the PNS, which is activated with the exhalation and contributes to the body resting, healing, and digesting. You need to seek a balance in the ANS to stay connected to your experience and make healthy choices.
Psychologically and behaviorally, when you exist in a more relaxed state, it is easier to be kind, caring, and compassionate. This relaxed state is physically healthier, too. When you are in the opposite, stressed state, the body is essentially at risk for illness.
Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Boston University and medical director of The Trauma Center in Boston, wrote in the book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, that when there is incoherence between our breathing and heart rate, there is a vulnerability for such illnesses as heart disease and cancer as well as psychological suffering, including depression and PTSD.
Research also suggests that chronic stress can have a profound impact on the immune system. Chronic stress can suppress this system, which can lead to illness. There is a clear need to cultivate relaxed states that promote clear thinking and protect against negative health effects.
The question then remains: How can we train ourselves toward greater harmony so that both our mind and body are in sync?
As I note above, breath is key in stimulating the PNS and SNS. Researchers, including van der Kolk, have found connections between one’s breaths and their relative experience of anger, anxiety, and depression. Studies have also suggested that yoga, which is a practice that typically links breathing and physical movements, can have a positive influence on numerous health concerns, such as high blood pressure, elevated stress hormone secretion, asthma, and low-back pain.
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If one is interested in unifying the mind and the body to promote positive and healthy decisions, a regular yoga and meditation practice with dedicated breath work may be a viable and rewarding path toward meeting this goal. It is also important to note that the path of yoga and meditation also involves challenges and requires a dedicated effort to stay connected to these practices through both grace and grit. I highly recommend working with a qualified and ethical teacher and practicing in a supportive community. These can be vital resources in working through any pitfalls along the way.
I wish you the best on your journey!
By John Rettger