Over the past century, there has been a gradual, but clear shift over time from traditional talk therapies and other self-help strategies toward more holistic, integrative approaches to wellness. Many of these approaches now include body-based tactics, which lean on the mind-body connection as a core theoretical pillar (e.g. Somatic Experiencing Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy). The primary benefit of this shift is that it allows you to be intuitive and guide your own healing journey. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. By building awareness of your thoughts, physical sensations, and the connection between the two, you can unlock a deeper, more authentic relationship with yourself. Ultimately, this will enable you to quickly identify when things feel out of balance so that you can seek out resources to meet your needs and feel like a healthier, more empowered version of yourself.
What is the Mind-Body Connection and is it Real?
In short, the term mind-body connection describes the bidirectional feedback loop between one’s body and mind. It is the idea that a person’s thoughts, beliefs, and emotions impact their biological processes and vice versa. While endorsement is not unanimous, trends in empirical research, clinical practice, and psychological theory signal support for this connection.
Since the early 1990s, there have been steady increases in both the practice of mind-body medicine and investments in related research through government and private foundation funding, evidencing more widespread acceptance of this holistic approach to health. Notably, empirical studies have found positive associations between body-centered interventions and emotional well-being, as well as between mindfulness-based interventions and improvements in physical health. Further, many integrative, holistic psychological theories acknowledge both the mind and the body’s ability to influence each other. Polyvagal theory is one example that explores the mind-body interaction of trauma and how our brains perceive threats (e.g. arousal, fight, flight, freeze).
How Does This Apply to You?
Many trauma specialists agree that memories are stored in the brain as cognition and in the body as sensations. But what does this mean? It means that when you are reminded of a negative memory, you may experience an unpleasant physical sensation at the same time.
For example, if you have ever had to speak in public, you may remember feeling nervous, afraid, or embarrassed. You may also remember the feeling of your palms sweating, your heart beating faster than normal in your chest, or your throat feeling tight. As you relive that memory now, you may even begin to experience some of those same emotions or sensations.
You can also try thinking about a time in the past when you were very angry. You may be able to pinpoint a source of tension in a specific body part; perhaps even a sense of heat or feeling flushed. It is as simple as that. Thoughts or memories connect with physical sensations, and vice versa.
But It’s Not That Simple
Our brains and bodies are incredibly complex and interconnected. As such, the risk is that we can become our own worst enemy. A negative emotion can heighten a negative sensation, which further heightens the emotion, and so the vicious cycle goes.
Think about the public speaking example from above. Feelings of anxiety lead your palms to sweat, which leads to more anxiety, which leads your heart to race faster and faster. This can be a very overwhelming and potentially paralyzing experience. Pair that with the psychological phenomenon known as negativity bias (e.g. it is easier for humans to notice and fixate on negative thoughts, feelings, and sensations compared to positive ones), and the mind-body connection can incite a fair amount of fear and frustration in anyone.
So What Then?
It would require significant effort and intentionality to interrupt our brain and body’s natural processes. However, research suggests that doing so, through mindfulness and body-based approaches, could have a positive impact.
In one way, creating opportunities for positive physical sensation has been shown to improve the nature of our cognitions. Look at massage therapy, tai-chi, dance/movement therapy, reflexology, acupuncture, and other body-centered interventions. These are thought to alleviate stress and decrease symptoms of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
Yoga-based interventions have also been linked with a decrease in depression and anxiety symptoms and an improvement in quality of life and well-being. In another way, exercising our brain through mindfulness-meditation strategies, such as visualization, personal mantras, and breathwork, is thought to decrease stress and have positive health impacts. Knowing this, let’s consider how we can leverage the mind-body connection therapeutically, to facilitate healing and improve overall wellness.
Practical Application: Speak the Language
To begin the healing process, you must first develop a vocabulary to better describe your “felt sense”. The body’s language is sensation, and to connect with it more fully, you must be able to speak the language.
Develop The Vocabulary
Below is a menu of felt-sense descriptors to become familiar with. Consider moments in your life when you may have experienced some of these sensations:
- Pressure – even, uneven, supportive feeling, crushed feeling, cutting off circulation
- Air current – gentle, cool, warm, from right/left, stimulating, rush, like a feather, like mist
- Tension – solid, dense, warm, cold, inflamed, protective, constricting, angry, sad
- Pain – ache, sharp, twinge, slight, stabbing
- Tingling – pricks, vibration, tickling, numb
- Itch – mild itch, angry itch, irritating itch, moving itch, subtle itch, small/large itch
- Temperature – warm, hot, burning, cool, cold, clammy, chills, icy, frozen; like hearth, oven, fire, sunshine, baked bread, snow, stone, shade
- Size – small, large
- Shape – flat, circle, blob, like a mountain
- Weight – light, heavy
- Motion – circular, erratic, straight line
- Speed – fast, slow, still
- Texture – rough, wood, stone, sandpaper, smooth, silk
- Element – fire, air, earth, water, wood
- Color – gray, blue, orange, etc.
- Mood/emotion – sinking, pulling in, open, closed, uplifting, sunny day, dark cloud, roiling
- Sound – buzzing, singing
- Taste – sour, bitter, sweet
- Smell – pungent, sweet, like rain, like leaves
- Absence/nothingness – blank, empty
Understand How Your Emotions and Body Connect
You can also reference the below Emotion-Sensation Wheel to practice noticing how you physically experience your feelings. Moments of conflict, moments of silence, or anything in between are all great opportunities to hone your internal awareness.
Seek Out the Support of a Therapist
Body-based approaches are becoming increasingly common among contemporary therapists. Somatic Experiencing or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy are a few examples of many modalities that lean on the concepts described in this article. Therapists who subscribe to holistic approaches such as these can offer you tangible tools to safely process negative memories. Further, they can serve as an empathetic witness to your personal journey and support you in your healing. If you want to schedule an appointment with a therapist today, click here to learn more and get scheduled.
Ultimately, the brain and body are incredibly complex, and it will be a long time before we understand them completely, if we ever do. Yet despite this, there appears to be compelling research proving foundational to how we understand human functioning at a basic level. Why not leverage it to help ourselves?