(Guest Blogger Talya Steinberg, Psy.D)
The body mind connection is a concept fundamental to many belief systems. What it postulates is that the body and mind mutually influence one another in a bi-directional fashion. In other words, biological processes affect thoughts and feelings, and cognitions affect body states.
This intricate relationship was well-demonstrated in a classic, creative study by Dutton and Aron (1974). The study took place at two sites, the first being a high, suspended bridge, and the second being a low bridge. After males, who just happened to be crossing either of these bridges on testing days reached the end, they were approached by a highly attractive woman and asked to fill out a short survey. Then they were provided with the woman’s “work card” just in case they had any questions. The researchers found that significantly more males who had crossed the “scary” bridge called the researcher than the males who had crossed the “safe” bridge. What the researchers theorized from these results was that the participants from the first bridge felt stronger feelings of attraction toward the woman researcher due to what is called “misattribution of arousal.” What this means is that the participants from the scary bridge, meeting the woman at the same time as experiencing a rush of adrenaline, interpreted their physiological sensations of excitement as arousal, or love, rather than just fear. The body’s underlying activity occurring in the background of consciousness affected thoughts and feelings.
In the same way as the body affects the mind, however, the mind is capable of immense effects on the body. The literature has demonstrated again and again that thoughts affect neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that allow the brain to communicate with different parts of itself and the nervous system. Neurotransmitters control virtually all of the body’s functions, from feeling happy to modulating hormones to dealing with stress. Therefore, our thoughts influence our bodies directly because the body interprets the messages coming from the brain to prepare us for whatever is expected.
For example, research shows that psychological stress affects our levels of catecholamines, which include the neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. These neurochemical changes prepare the body to deal with perceived danger in a number of important ways, such as raising blood pressure so as to allow faster speed and response time. However, chronic elevations in catecholamines suppresses the immune system, and suppression of the immune system raises the risk of viral infection and other diseases.
Resilient people actually resist illnesses, cope with adversity, and recover quicker because they are able to maintain a positive attitude and manage their stress effectively. By managing our attitudes and stress levels, we actually control neurochemical transmissions in the body. The power of a healthy attitude therefore cannot be underestimated in the body-mind connection.
Take home message? Take care of your mind, your body will thank you. And on the flip side, take care of your body, your mind will thank you.
Dr. Talya Steinberg received her doctorate in Clinical Psychology in 2011 and is completing her postdoctoral training in Portland, Maine. She endorses positive psychology principles and teaches resiliency skills with Dr. Breazeale.