The mind and body are inextricably connected. Modern science is showing us how our thoughts, feelings, and behavior impact the way our bodies feel and function and vice versa.
We now know how chronic stress impacts the brain and immune system. The brain sends signals to the immune system by releasing neurotransmitters which carry communications to the immune cells. A stressor can trigger the release of various neurotransmitters that tell the immune system what to do. Conversely, immune system cells release their own chemicals that have an effect on the brain, which in turn tells other cells and systems in the body what to do. The stress hormone cortisol suppresses immune cell ability to replace DNA that is lost during cell division, making individuals under chronic stress more susceptible to illness. In addition, research has shown that the effects of stress can be conditioned such that even after the stressor is removed, immune suppression can continue. In short, our brains impact our immune systems and vice versa.
There is growing evidence of the way in which the mind and body interact to impact health. We have found that certain chronic diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, IBS, asthma and fibromyalgia, can worsen in the presence of depression and anxiety. Helplessness and hopelessness are correlated with decreased rates of survival in individuals with life threatening illness. There is research showing how mindfulness meditation can lower blood pressure and decrease nausea and chronic pain. Biofeedback has been associated with decreased severity and frequency of migraine headaches in children. We also know that counseling, stress management education, relaxation training, attending worship services, and having a strong sense of spirituality are correlated with increased lifespan as well as decreased symptom severity or reoccurrence in individuals with serious illnesses such as cancer, HIV, and cardiovascular disease.
It makes sense then, that we address the whole person – body, mind and spirit – in the services we provide to people suffering from stress and/or illness. Consumers are also indicating a growing interest in these integrated services. Fortunately, more and more of us are recognizing the mind-body connection and its importance in health and wellbeing.