We go to the doctor when we have severe pains, fevers or other physical symptoms. We take vitamins, have routine checkups, exercise and adapt our diets to prevent physical illnesses. As we commemorate Mental Health Awareness Month at The Family Institute, we’re talking to our expert clinicians about the connections between physical and mental health, as well as what can be done to prevent more serious mental illnesses.
Today’s insights on the connections between the mind and body come from Amy Sprague Champeau, MSMFT, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist, a Jungian psychoanalyst and a staff therapist at The Family Institute.
Physical and mental health are connected.
In my opinion, it is frequently difficult to separate physical and mental health since what happens in the body affects our minds and hearts and vice versa. Many psychological disorders, such as depression and anxiety, also involve difficulties with sleep, touch, digestion, appetite and arousal. Physical illness and pain often contribute to emotional distress. And emotional distress can lead to a variety of physical symptoms. This is particularly true in the area of trauma. Bessel van der Kolk, MD, a psychiatrist known for his research on post-traumatic stress, famously stated that “the body keeps the score”. This means that our bodies are the repository of what we experience in our lives. For example, trauma (any experience — physical or emotional — that overwhelms our system), produces actual physiological changes including a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity and changes in the ways our bodies and minds filter information. After trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system. In the aftermath of trauma, our attempts to maintain control of physical and emotional reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms, including digestive distress, autoimmune diseases, chronic pain, etc.
Listen to your body — it might hold symbols.
From a very different perspective, as a Jungian analyst, I see that our physical symptoms can also be seen from a symbolic perspective. So, for example, someone with a difficulty speaking up for himself might experience repeated pain in the area of his throat. That is not to say that the physical symptoms are not ‘real’ or even treatable physical ailments. But we can learn to listen to the body in many ways and to act in our lives so that our body does not need to ‘speak’ for us. In my experience, our emotions are deeply connected to our physical selves. Intense emotions involve not only the mind but also the gut and the heart. Some mental health problems start as attempts to cope with the unbearable physical pain of our emotions. Psychologist William James wrote, “A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity….emotion dissociated from all bodily feeling is inconceivable.” Our bodies hold within them a record of our emotional life. Recent research has taught us of the important of the vagus nerve which connects numerous organs, such as the brain, lungs, heart, stomach and intestines and is important in regulating our emotional and physical arousal.
The ‘trauma’ perspective and the ‘symbolic’ perspective point to the importance of attending to the body in the course of mental health treatment.
I believe it is helpful to develop a curiosity about our physical symptoms. But before assuming that the problem is ‘purely psychological’ it is important to have physical symptoms evaluated by a physician. It would be irresponsible for a clinician to avoid the importance of getting appropriate and needed medical attention. Certainly, as was stated above, many mental health diagnoses also list various types of physical discomfort as symptoms.
Having said that, physical pain and discomfort might hold clues to what is going on emotionally. Difficulty sleeping, changes in energy levels, changes in digestive functioning, increased pain, difficulty doing what was previously easy to do, feelings of ‘panic’ (i.e., the physical sensations of fear) – any change in physical functioning, actually, – can be a clue that we might want to investigate the emotional component. Some types of physical health problems surface after a loss or trauma of some kind. I believe that the body and its symptoms can be a pathway to personal growth.
Use the information the body provides.
Taking care of our physical health by taking vitamins, going to the doctor, making diet choices and exercising can certainly help to avoid larger mental health issues. In addition, developing practices that help us to remain grounded and anchored in the present can be very helpful for maintaining mental health. This type of practice typically falls under the heading of ‘mindfulness’. These practices might be as simple as doing a ‘body scan’ a couple of times a day, taking 30 seconds to check in with one’s body to notice what is comfortable, tight, tense, etc., and then learning to understand what that information means to us and act on it. We can learn to ‘listen in’ to the messages of the body. Meditation and other body-and-breath practices help to connect the body and mind so that they work together. They are useful in helping to calm ourselves and cope with stress and anxiety. There are also now types of bodywork that are designed to help our bodies release what has been held in the tissue. Certain types of yoga moves and practices can also help us to develop a body/mind awareness and to regulate our emotional responses, as can TRE (tension and trauma releasing exercises) which help to release tension and trauma from the body and aid in emotional self-regulation. Developing a sense of body awareness is critical to mental health. That means we can sense what is going on in our bodies. We can ‘tune-in- to what our bodies need rather than overriding its signals. We can learn to use the information from the body to help us cope with what is going on in our lives.