Physical health. Mental health. Emotional health. We use these categories to help us think about self-care and life balance, but we must also keep in mind that all these different categories of health–physical, mental, emotional–are actually strongly connected to each other and influence one another.
One of these connections is the Mind-Body Connection, which is the link between our emotional and mental health (such as thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors) and our physical health. Our biology impacts our mood. How our body feels impacts our emotions.
With all of these factors combined, they play a major role in influencing our overall health. If you’ve ever felt your stomach tighten up when you were anxious, you’ve experienced the mind-body connection.
“Your mind and body are powerful allies. How you think can affect how you feel. And how you feel can affect your thinking. An example of this mind-body connection is how your body responds to stress. Constant worry and stress over jobs, finances, or other problems can cause tense muscles, pain, headaches, and stomach problems. It may also lead to high blood pressure or other serious problems.”
– University of Michigan Medicine
Emotions are Physical
Emotions may seem like they’re nebulous and non-material, but emotions are actually very physical. A 2013 study attempted to illustrate this by creating a “map” of emotions as physical sensations to depict where we experience different emotions in the body.
These photos represent the body maps for a variety of emotions. Yellow indicates the highest level of activity or sensation. Red indicates the second-highest level of activity. Black is neutral and blue and light blue indicates low and very low levels of activity.
Many of these emotions had high levels of physical sensation in the upper chest area, such as changes in breathing and heart rate. High levels of physical sensation is also common in the head area, which can include things like facial expression and changes in the thoughts.
Having a visual representation of our emotions and how they can impact our physical state can help us remember the importance of the mind-body connection.
Emotions and the Immune System
Another important aspect of our emotions is how they affect our immune system. Studies have shown that people who experience negative moods on a daily basis for prolonged periods of time tend to have increased inflammation. Other studies have shown that exposure to chronic stress can affect our immune system’s ability to fight illness and disease.
In essence, the scientific research shows that positive and negative outlooks on life may have an impact on our immune system’s ability to work well. Our outlook, our thoughts, our emotions, our beliefs, can influence our physical health.
And this can become a self-perpetuating cycle. For example, say you’re struggling with a lot of stress, which weakens your immune system so you’re more likely to catch a cold, and then being sick makes it harder for you to do all the things you need to do during your day, so you get more stressed, and that keeps your immune system weak so you stay sick longer.
Becoming Aware of the Connection
Sometimes we may not even be aware of how our bodies are storing stress, trauma, and other emotions. Maybe our back starts hurting or we get a headache and we don’t make that connection to what’s going on with us emotionally or mentally.
This is why practicing self-awareness, or mindfulness is so important. Mindfulness means being fully present and aware of where we are and what we’re doing. It means not being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us, but just being aware and reflective.
The first step to supporting a healthy mind-body connection is to build your awareness of that connection and what’s going on in your mind and in your body.
Regularly asking yourself questions like:
- How is my body doing?
- What am I thinking about and feeling?
- How are the two connecting?
These questions can help you identify feelings or thoughts or physical issues that need to be addressed.
Utilizing Coping Strategies
As you build a practice of self-awareness and mindfulness, you can then use coping strategies to address the issues you identify. These coping strategies can help you regulate your emotions, manage your stress, and take care of your mind and body.
You can work towards physical and mental balance by using a variety of coping strategies and lifestyle practices. For example, if you’re emotionally or mentally stressed out about work or school or a personal relationship that is experiencing conflict, you can go for a run or a walk outside. The vitamin D from being out in the sun can help improve your mood. The chemicals released during and after your run can help you feel calmer and less anxious. This is an example of a physical coping strategy that can support you mentally and physically.
Other examples include meditation, deep breathing, proper hydration and nutrition, therapeutic self-massage, journaling, maintaining social connections, and many more.