The Mind Body Connection

meditating-1170645_640The 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.

Finding the Mental Health Services You Need

When life concerns seem fairly typical and routine, it may not be all that difficult to find help.  If it’s just a check-up that’s required, we often go to our insurer’s provider list and pick the closest general practitioner in-network.

But, what about when your needs are unique, complicated, or confusing? What if “treatment as usual” hasn’t brought desired results? Sometimes picking the most convenient provider from the top of the insurance list doesn’t get us what we need.  When the stakes are high, it is important to get the best help available.

In the world of mental health care, finding a provider you really click with is of utmost importance.  Research has shown that your relationship with your counselor is one of the most important factors in treatment success.

It is also very important to have a provider who understands your particular concerns and has experience treating them.  Depression and anxiety are very common and most mental health practitioners get a lot of experience working with these disorders.

But some disorders are relatively rare and some concerns are highly sensitive, so it may be harder to locate a provider who has the experience and open-mindedness needed to effectively address them. In addition, some disorders have only one or two methods of treatment that have been supported by research.  In that case it may be important for you to find a provider who is experienced with that particular form of treatment.

For adults, there are empirically supported treatments for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Chronic Pain, Depression, Eating Disorders, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Insomnia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Schizophrenia, Social Phobia, Specific Phobias, and Substance Use Disorders. For children and adolescents there are empirically supported treatments for many of the same disorders as well as Disruptive Behavior Problems like Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder.

Fortunately most mental health providers now have websites where you can read about their credentials, experience, and approach.  Many of us maintain blogs where you can get to know our views and get a taste of what it might be like to work with us.  Most of us are also willing to speak with you over the phone for a few minutes to introduce ourselves and answer your preliminary questions.

You can find mental health professionals in your area through any number of online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and Good Therapy. Lower cost and subsidized services are also available for those with financial need, so no one should feel that professional help is beyond their reach.

Tracy Ochester, PsyD is a psychologist in independent practice in Leawood, KS. She specializes in cognitive behavior therapy, mindfulness informed practices, and psychodiagnostic testing. Dr. Ochester also teaches at the university level, supervises aspiring psychologists, and provides consultation services to the community.