What’s Behind the Mind-Body Connection?

BrainWe’ve probably all known it – or at least seen it. That bout of flu (or other “everyday” illness) with every imaginable and miserable symptom that seemingly comes out of nowhere and won’t release its grip for anything. It took root despite good eating and reasonable exercise, and it won’t seem to respond to any amount of care or remedy (conventional or complementary). Maybe you get a slight reprieve – a few days of hope when it seems to lift, but then you’re plunged mercilessly back into another ring of flu-ish hell. You feel like you’ll never know health or a decent night’s sleep again.

We can watch some strange and, at times, clear-sighted thoughts go by when we’re in the throes of this kind of persistent illness – either collapsed on the couch for another prostrate but restless hour (or driving ourselves ragged and miserable through the day to take care of duties we simply can’t let go of). What about all those nagging, worrying thoughts that have taken up so much mental bandwidth lately? What about the late nights stressing over child care, marital discord, a parent’s cognitive decline, job overload, financial pressure, midlife questions, or other potent issues? What about the lack of gratitude we’ve felt lately? What about the feeling that’s overtaken us recently that our lives have become too much hamster wheel and too little joy? Is our stress sending a message when it knocks us down and keeps us there long enough to respect the severity of its strain? Even if we got on the sick train in a good mental state, have we succumbed to frustration? Could that despondent attitude be perpetuating our wretched physical condition?

I’m not suggesting illness is some kind of spiritual visitation akin to A Christmas Carol showing us the error of our ways in a metaphysical parade (although severe fatigue can bring on some funky hallucinations). Some pathogens are stronger than others, but the fact is they benefit from the right conditions to set up shop in a particular body – and certainly to take over the whole place for weeks on end. Stress in all its forms, sleep in short supply and plenty of other physical as well as emotional factors provide the perfect setup for a pathogen’s hold. Our stress doesn’t of course create illness, but it can help harbor it and even create an ongoing loop of negative feedback that keeps us stuck both physically and psychologically.

Beyond the simple illustration of flu and frustration, how much does our overall mindset and emotional well-being feed our physical health? That’s the question behind the mind-body exchange that researchers have chased for decades (and philosophers have dissected for millennia). Just what’s behind the mind-body connection? How powerful is it really? How should it influence the way we approach our own health and happiness?

There are, of course, multiple angles at work here – everything from positive thinking to negative thoughts to embodied cognition to placebo (or flip-side “nocebo”) effect to emotional support to meditation to the psychology of pain. Just as the placebo effect seems to hold greater sway over some people more than others, the interchange of mind and body may differ from person to person, but it’s clear that our bodies don’t operate on a separate plane than our minds. The ramifications – and possibilities – of their interchange continue to reveal themselves.

On a basic level, we can all likely understand how physiological and psychological feelings manifest together in our bodies. Recently, a Finnish group of researchers created body maps of where specific emotions are experienced – a “topography” of the physical sensations universally associated with a wide range of emotions.

The visual representations of their results are striking. The hot energy or cold and drained emptiness in varying areas of our bodies illustrated in the representative figures, I think, are uncomfortably familiar. It would be an unnervingly intimate, personal detail of our inner experience – except these sensations are universally human.

However, our emotional experience can have much deeper impact on our physical state than simply a fleeting sensation. Over time or in intensive situations, our emotions and thoughts can result in direct changes down to the cellular level.

Study participants, for example, who showed more activity in a brain region associated with negative thinking (right prefrontal cortex) at the time of a vaccine administration showed poorer immune (antibody) response to the vaccine during the six month follow-up period.  Research has also associated negative thinking with reduced natural killer cell activity. On the other side of this coin, activities that induce the body’s so-called relaxation response have been shown to boost immune function.

Yet, even beyond immune function, we find additional effects. The fact is, studies suggest our thoughts – whether we choose them or they’re induced through the placebo process – can influence everything from how fast our cells age to how we rate our quality of life to how much mobility and even visual acuity we have.

Research has demonstrated the long-term impact of chronic stress on the body’s overall health and aging process. A UCLA study, for example, implicates cortisol in shortening telomere length. The stress hormone suppresses the activation of the enzyme telomerase that is responsible for keeping immune cells healthy and “young.” Telomere length is regarded as a measure of physiological aging and immune function.

In one related study, breast cancer survivors who were experiencing distress participated in either an 8-week meditation instruction, a support group or a control group. At the end of the eight weeks, those who received either of the interventions maintained their telomere length, while telomere length in the control group has shortened. Psychological support offers clear physiological results.

From a placebo-based angle, a small study of sixty Parkinson’s patients showed that those who received a “sham” surgery reported experiencing better quality of life a full year post-”surgery.” (PDF) As the researchers note, even their doctors, who didn’t know whether particular patients had received the actual surgery or not, rated their neurological functioning better at the twelve month mark. Although participants who’d received the true surgery displayed (as a whole) better movement capacity, in some cases “sham” recipients experienced dramatic changes in ability, including the transformation from years of physical inactivity to hiking and skating.

If these illustrations sound fantastical, consider the statistic that over half of people who seek out medical assistance from specialties as diverse as cardiology to gynecology to neurology manifest symptoms for which no physical cause can be determined. The stories we tell ourselves – and those we accept from others (whether they be to our benefit or detriment) in some complex way appear to partially orchestrate what happens in our physiological systems.

Finally, what if our very perception of our age and ability could be markedly shifted in a matter of a few days by mere external suggestion? Ellen Langer, the groundbreaking psychologist who has specialized in the mind-body connection (I’ve mentioned her research before), sought to answer this question over three decades ago when she set up an experiment for the record books.

Langer designed an old monastery to entirely replicate 1959 from radio programs to assigned clothes to house decor – twenty-two years later. She then brought in two groups of men in their 70s and 80s to live in the fully historical residence for five days. One group was told to live among the memorabilia but be in the present day. The other group was instructed to “inhabit” the time period reflected in the design – to live as if they were twenty-two years younger in those years.

Without even mirrors or contemporary photos of themselves, the setting and activities steeped subjects in memories of their lives twenty-two years prior. Likewise, the subjects were treated as they would’ve been those decades prior with expectations to perform their own physical duties – including luggage carrying. The only difference was intention – to observe and reminisce versus to imagine and relive. Five days doesn’t sound like much – particularly for a scientific experiment, but five days of the carefully constructed immersion was enough to yield remarkable results.

This immersion, Langer and her team believed, would serve as a powerful “prime” to shift the participants’ thinking, allowing their bodies to then respond in the direction of de-aging. Among the changes observed or noted after those five pivotal days were improved strength, flexibility manual dexterity, better posture, suppler and younger appearance (as determined by independent observers) and other across the board improvements in both groups. The second group asked to inhabit the historical time and stage of life, however, demonstrated superior performance on a number of measures compared to the other “control” group, including better vision. Some had stopped using their canes. At one point they played a game of touch football.

Whether it’s Langer’s studies, meditation research or placebo/nocebo scenarios, the results of these explorations into the mind-body connection – or maybe continuum – gives us food for thought. We are, to a large extent, the age we believe we are. The healthier and more capable we perceive ourselves to be, the more we’ll become that. The more we feel cared for (whether by therapeutic intervention, positive doctor-patient relationship or support group participation), the better our well-being.

While our thoughts may not overturn every physiological circumstance, we underestimate the potential of reframing our experience. With good choices in addition to positive thinking, we maximize our capacity to create a vitality-filled life – within and without.

Thanks for reading, everyone. What are your thoughts on the mind-body interchange? Have you experienced its relevance in your health? Have a good end to the week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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39 thoughts on “What’s Behind the Mind-Body Connection?”

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  1. Interesting! I always find that it seems to be a common theme among humans who’ve reached incredible ages – whenever they’re asked of their secret, they attribute their health to something that implies a lack of worry or general optimism. Stuff like ‘enjoying myself,’ or ‘having a glass of whiskey before bed,’ or something like that.

    1. Ditto,

      every single person I know that lives well to a very old age are generally very unstressed people. Not particularly joyful or active, just not easily stressed. Don get me wrong, some are super active or really well humoured, but what they all have in common is peace of mind. My great grandma died well over 90 and she had sat on a rocking chair since she was 50 due to a broken hip, and ate just about every piece of crap the docs told her not to. Her colesterol was off the chart and so was her blood pressure, and still she complained of nothing, ate what she pleased, did nothing but knit and read and dictate orders around and died of a sleeping pill overdose cos she insisted she had to sleep 9 hours every day. 😉

  2. I do believe it exists, although it’s difficult to figure out how your body and mind interact all the time. It seems for me as though there is a delay, where I can be under a great deal of stress and feel okay, but it just doesn’t last.

    Our emotional response to physical distress and illness also plays into some sort of cycle I think. It’s tough to determine what came first when I look back on some of my health issues – the physical or mental side of it. The two are certainly tied together and it’s tricky to tease it out. Taking care of both body and mind is necessary!

  3. I struggle with a few physical issues that are 100% correlated with my mental health (TMJ & IBS being the biggest.) When I can focus on lowering my anxiety the symptoms virtually disappear.

  4. I’m always fascinated by the notion of psychosomatic pain – pain being caused primarily by psychological and emotion stresses. Sometimes I suspect that I may suffer from that. I have debilitating pain in my legs still (Carrie answered my question in a Dear Mark last November, but I’m still being ailed). What do you guys think? Will calming the stresses and relaxing be beneficial in alleviating pain in these cases – if they are even legitimate?

    1. Helena,
      The pain is not psychosomatic. The pain is real, but your mind may be causing the pain. Dr. John Sarno has written books about the subject. The pain isn’t in your head; however, you take care of the mind and the pain goes away. Give his stuff a look.

      1. Another vote for dr. John Sarno, his book healing back pain naturally helped me immensely.

        1. +1 for Dr. Sarno.

          Book is cheap, too. On Amazon. Reading his book helped end my husband’s chronic back pain and plantar fasciitis. This… after several trips in an ambulance to the ER.

          Actually, I would love it if Mark could get him on a show.

    2. Certainly, doing those things that you mentioned couldn’t make your situation worse….I would suggest that you understand what it is that makes you stressed and either erase that from your life as much as possible or else fashion an softer emotional reaction to it. I would also guess that doing those things will become an easier task once you realize that your health might truly hinge upon doing so.

    3. I experienced that for years. I do not know if your situation is the same as mine. However, I found that others had had doctors identity it as a nerve problem stemming from the herpes virus, which lies dormant in your spine if you have ever had the chicken pox. When it acts up, it can become systemic. In fact, a number of studies have been done back east that have pointed to the fact that ms patients all seem to have the herpes virus residing in nerves within the brain. Treating it naturally, when I am tired, under stress, etc., I will take 3,000 mg a day of Lysine and take chelated zinc with it. The combination allows your body to interrupt the protein replication of the virus and fight it off. Since then, I have not struggled with leg pain. (Corn and nuts are high in Argenine and can also set off the virus. If I eat popcorn or nuts, I take Lysine and Zinc.)

  5. I couldn’t agree more! I’ve observed over the past few years that in spite of not getting vaccines (not that I have a strong opinion of them, I just don’t like needles), I never really catch the bugs that go around every year. When I do get sick it hits me really hard, and seems to happen only at times I’m really stressed.

    I’m always over it within a matter of days when I do get sick, two, maybe three tops. I always go through a little exercise to sort out my symptoms, a sort of meditation really. I’ll focus on each symptom individually and try to determine “Is this really because of what I’ve caught?”. Interesting thing is some symptoms actually seem to disappear after that. Trying to get a hold on the snowball effect on symptoms before it’s out of hand!

    I also make a rule not to complain about being sick, and avoid mentioning it if possible (exception being in cases where it’s polite, such as explaining to a new acquaintance why I’d have to politely decline shaking hands). Attitude is everything!

    On the other hand, same cold or flu season, most of my coworkers will get hit more severely. The young lady in the cubicle next time mine seems to have been fighting the same thing for a few weeks. I have a coworker who was sick for an entire month. The two people who sit ahead of me get sick in an instant whenever somebody coughs and will be out for a few days, and it seems to get them two or three times each season.

    I’m not trying to put them down in any way, that has to be miserable and I feel bad for them. The other part of it is, these are some of my coworkers with attitudes that tend to trend towards negative thoughts, so I have to think there’s something there.

    Life’s too short and precious to spend chunks of it feeling miserable from stress and negativity!

    1. I have to agree. I never get flu shots. And all my negative, complaining coworkers get sick way more often and seems to last much longer. I have been at my job 4 years and have called in sick once.

  6. I always wondered about this when I was in school. At the end of the semester, pretty much as soon as I was done with my last final I’d get sick, and then be sick for the rest of the school break. It was as if I was holding out until I had time. Yes, I procrastinated the flu…

    1. I had the exact same experience in college!
      And I also had it happen to me on my honeymoon!
      It’s really been huge for me to work on controlling my stress levels.

  7. I remember my mother telling me one time that her mother (my grandma) had said before that she never really felt grown up, like an adult, even after her kids were grown and everything. (Although she was very responsible!) My grandma was very youthful until she died at 89. I’m sure that had a lot to do with her feeling youthful. At 45 I have to admit, I have always felt the same way. BTW my mom said she had never had that thought…

  8. Am currently on day 23 of a Whole30. No sugar, dairy, grains, legumes, alcohol. I’ve never eaten this strictly before and am amazed not only at the physical benefits but also at the profound effect of eating clean on my emotional well- being. I feel calm, content and a profound sense of positivity.

  9. We in the West are slow to accept the effects of our thoughts and feelings on our stress levels and how those stress levels compromise our immune functions to prolong illness. Thankfully, many practitioners of Integrative Medicine are now making the connection that most, more ancient disciplines have promoted for millennia. How PRIMAL is that?

  10. My papa snow skied until 89yo. He golfed and went to the gym into his nineties. He only saw himself as “stiff” and not in pain. His body followed where his mind went. Even in the end when at 96 he felt it was “time to go.” The debility he had before passing in his sleep was less than a month. He had the ultimate quality and quantity of life. I do feel he was born with his awesome attitude, but choice and nuture played a role. I am like my father. I am a twenty year old living with the wisdom of a 56 yo! What a ride! Rock on brain power!

  11. I love the thought of men in their 70’s and 80’s playing a game of football.

  12. I do believe some of us are just genetically lucky. Like my 95 year old grandfather. He considers Oreos to be a food group and sadly worries about everything and always has.

  13. Great post except all those hyperlinks were giving me stress! I’ll take a visit from the ghost of Xmas past rather than reading all the ancillary material.

  14. I read about Ellen Langer’s research and I summarized it by writing myself a little note that I posted on a bulletin board that I see first thing every day. It says’ “You are the placebo!”

  15. I was reminded earlier this morning of the experience of Norman Cousins who essentially healed himself of Marie-Strumpell’s disease with vitamin C and intentional bouts of laughter invoked by intensive viewing of Marx Bros. movies. Ed Asner starred in a movie about Cousins’ feat.

    1. I stopped watching TV news and distressing stuff many years ago. My husband gets upset at watching “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” TV news and opinion shows, so I don’t allow him to watch anymore : )

      Along with staying away from toxic/negative people – it’s vastly improved our life outlooks.

      I’m all sci-fi fantasy and silly comedies, and things and friends that make us laugh.

  16. Another vote for Dr Sarno’s work. Real pain, with a genesis in the brain and emotions. For me, I have found that negative emotions “glom on” to my viral, sinus, or strep symptoms and make them much worse than they really are. I will note, however, that for 20 years no doctor in the medical establishment could find a cause for my intestinal symptoms. I was told to get on with my life. Well, mostly Primal for several months now, and my symptoms are gone, unless I cheat. Just because western medicine finds no cause doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

  17. I never think about age. If someone asks me how old I am, I think about my husband’s age and subtract a year!

  18. Interesting discussion on elder immersion group going back in time, and how you seem to be “as old as you think you are”. Maybe this is why people in their 60’s and older who are still involved in some type of career don’t seem to age as much as those who retire from work completely and settle into full time leisure.

  19. I have been reading a couple different things recently about the vagus nerve – Go Wild by John Ratey and Richard Manning mentions it pretty prominently, and Ben Greenfield was talking about it in one of the recent episodes of his Obstacle Dominator podcast.

    It’s a nerve that basic connects the central (brain-driven) nervous system and the enteric (gut-driven) nervous system, and is thought to be responsible for physical manifestations of stress in a lot of ways as it communicates back and forth between these two systems. Has anyone else considered this as a Mind-Body connection point?

  20. As a med student I’m optimistical about our classic Western medicine at least slowly incorporating holistic approach to health, particularly mind-body connection. Majority of it can be explained on a physiological level that even more “conservative” scientist would accept – eg. If you constantly feel like you don’t have enough time and fret about running out of it, your stress response activates, your adrenal glands fire up, your heart rate and blood pressure go up, your immune system fails, you are susceptible to a disease and premature death and eventualy, yes, you do end up not having enough time.

    Breaking those vicious cycles and old patterns might just be the best therapy.

  21. Wow, I will definitely share this. A quote I heard recently is very much in line with this: “We need to learn to stop listening to ourselves and start talking to ourselves”. Identifying those negative/anxious thoughts – I think they often play in our heads without us even being consciously aware – and then CHOOSING to replace them with useful, empowering thoughts. Its made a huge difference for me and I loved this more scientific angle. Thank you for sharing!

  22. On this theme if you want in depth reading matter try Energy Medicine In Therapeutics and Human Performance (Oschmann) and Healing Back Book (Sarno) for an interesting look at mind-body connections with respect to pain. Really fascinating area.

  23. Another thing about mind-body connectivity is that it isn’t just thinking positive thoughts – it’s what we DO.

    People who are retired and have nothing to do commonly become depressed, have poor health or just die. The brain is getting the message that the body is winding down and is no longer active – time to shut down.

    My own mother became depressed after she lost her job. Living with my brother, Asian-style, she no longer had anything to do, The daughter-in-law took care of the house, the grandchildren were grown, there was no man in her life, and she didn’t drive or have any hobbies or friends. She was in deep depression, the meds they gave her made her a zombie – eventually she came out of it but it hurt her permanently – she is a ghost of her former self and can’t remember much of what happened during her depression. Very scary.

    Two siblings who went through hard times with lost businesses and jobs had similar outcomes but not as bad. I witnessed the rapid decline in sensibility that came with not having a daily routine. The longer, the worse it got.

    It also comes into play if you research different illness and mortality rates in people in different occupations. You are what you do?

  24. Last year, I overextended myself and was sick for a few months. It started with a cold and ended up as bronchitis. I went to the doctor to make sure, and he (gasp!) prescribed antibiotics. I was pretty certain though that most bronchitis is viral and not bacterial. So, I didn’t fill the prescription. Instead, I cancelled all appointments, slept, rested, meditated and ate a ton of veggies. After having a bronchial cough for several weeks, I was able to rid myself of this ailment in about 3 days.

    The mind/body connection is powerful stuff.

    I suggest watching “I AM” the documentary by Tom Shadyac, or reading “The Field” by Lynn McTaggert.

  25. I’d like to add something to this discussion: the longterm effects of the hope/despair cycle.

    I’ve lived with chronic illness most of my life, having been diagnosed with classic migraine when I was 6 years old – I’m 55 now. Add IBS, gluten-sensitivity, hypoglycaemia, and depression to the mix. I fought my body viciously; exercise, herbs, minerals, supplements, talk therapy, autegenics, biofeed training, cognitive behavioural therapy, cold water treatment, botox, acupuncture, 8 months in a chronic pain clinic. I thought I was obese at 126 lb, so I recurringly starved and exercised down to under 120lb. Unsurprisingly, I developed chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and peripheral neuritis.

    Each time I came across something new, I’d get my hopes up. This time, this herb, that meditation practice, the other mineral, would help. Sometimes it did – for a while – and my confidence would grow. I had it licked, I was really healthy and normal at last. Then my feet would go out from under me, and I’d crash. Scrape myself off the tarmac, start again.

    For me, the breakthrough came when I finally saw my body as a poor suffering animal, and my conditions as genuine biogenetic expressions. When I uncurled my fists into hands, and said “yes” instead of screaming “NO!!”, the quality of my life improved out of all recognition. I’m getting better at treating my body as the sickly animal that it is, and so I feel better about myself and my life than I have for many years. My pain is no longer my enemy, but just a manifestation of a neurochemical cascade. It just is, like Mount Everest is. Acceptance has made all the difference; I have less pain, and it’s just part of my life instead of its defining feature.