Connecting Mind and Body Through Mindfulness: soothing a stressed nervous system

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to one's own mind, inviting oneself to be in the present moment without judgement. The intention behind mindful awareness is to bring ones focus into the present moment, increase awareness of breath and body in effort to quiet the mind and increase overall mental and physical wellbeing. This concept might sound easy, however it can be very challenging.

Our minds are often operating in a state of chaos or rigidity, responding to stress and manifesting with feelings of fear, anger or sadness. Our bodies and our minds are one -- therefore the stress that is felt in the body will be felt in the mind and stress of the mind will in turn be felt in the body. As a result of this mind body connection there is growing understanding that certain physical ailments can be linked back to the stress or trauma response.

When our bodies are under chronic stress or when we face a traumatic situation, the brain responds and areas of the brain that are hard wired for protection and survival, the limbic system and the amygdala, kick into gear. In response the brain and body goes into fight-flight or freeze and a stress chemical, cortisol, gets released in high amounts. This is an excellent system to have to help when we are actually faced with danger. Typically when the fight-flight or freeze defenses come on line they serve their purpose and then the system returns to homeostasis. We respond to the threat or stress and then when it passes we regain balance within our central nervous, immune and endocrine system. If one is not able to return to a state of balance either because the initial stress was very damaging or due to the chronic nature of the stress a problem develops and the system will begin to function on overdrive. In the face of toxic stress or trauma the body and mind may find it difficult to return to a state of balance and as a result the system will operate in a dysregulated state.

For many people exposure to situations that they code as chronic stress and experiences that are traumatic can result in high levels of cortisol and a hyper aroused nervous system, which can make the systems more sensitive and interfere with functions of the brain and body. High levels of cortisol can have negative impacts on the immune system. People exposed to adverse experiences as children have a much greater likelihood of developing a medical illness later in life.

Dr. Vincent Felitti, from Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, started researching the connection between adult illness and their experience of physical, emotional or sexual abuse as children. He began his research in the 1980’s and developed the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study which consisted of a questionnaire to identify the exposure an adult patient with severe medical problems had as a child to difficult situations and abuse. The findings were overwhelmingly clear that exposure to chronic stress or trauma as a child greatly impacted the likelihood that the adult would have chronic medical problems. With systems on hyper alert you can probably imagine how this would be taxing on the heart and veins leaving the body vulnerable to disease and infections.

Immune systems that are over stimulated can cause the system to attack the organs and lead to inflammation of the body resulting in auto immune diseases.

This list is a partial list of the diseases that researches suspect are affected by negative emotions in response to stress or trauma:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Irritable Bowel syndrome
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Morbid obesity
  • Anxiety and Depression
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Chronic pain syndrome
  • Addiction to drugs, alcohol and nicotine
  • Auto Immune Disorders

Felitti is just one of many who have been studying the connection of stress and trauma to disease.

When our minds and bodies are stuck in stress of the past this stress can increase the negative impact in our minds and bodies and keep us from being at peace in the present moment.

A mindfulness practice often consists of breath awareness, meditative movement and/or guided visualizations. There are numerous benefits to a mindfulness practice. People have been practicing mindfulness for centuries as part of various spiritual practices. The medical community, after many years of research, recognizes the positive benefits of breath awareness and mindfulness to address emotional, mental and physical ailments.

Research shows that the brain responds to mindfulness and in response stress hormones decrease and the physical structure of the brain changes for the positive, thickening cortical regions of the brain associated with attention and sensory processing -- increasing attention, emotional control and problem solving. When we practice anything we strengthen neural pathways. Data also shows that a mindfulness practice may improve physiological functioning of the body by decreasing sympathetic activation and increasing neuroendocrine functions. Simply by adopting a regular mindfulness practice people can improve their health and mental functioning. There are many different ways to practice mindfulness, but essentially mindfulness can take as little as a moment and consists of being present and aware maybe of your breath, a sound, a sensation in your body.

Physiological and Emotional Benefits of Mindfulness:

  • Reduction of blood pressure
  • Reduction of chronic pain
  • Improvement with sleep
  • Alleviation of gastro-intestinal difficulties
  • Increased awareness of bodily sensations
  • Improved Immune system functioning
  • Reduced rumination
  • Reduced depressive symptoms
  • Reduced stress
  • Less emotional reactivity
  • More cognitive flexibility
  • Enhances self sight, morality, intuition, and fear modulation

Dr. Daniel Siegel a leading voice in the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology presents the idea of mindsight as an ability to perceive and sense information flow in ourselves and our own brains and nervous systems. He then describes the further awareness that can be gained by observing our relationships with others and with this increased awareness we can understand ourselves and others more fully. With this knowledge we can then shape and modify our thoughts and actions in relationship to others.

Learning to soothe a reactive nervous system and release chronic stress through mindful awareness practice is essential is regulating a mind and body that has been hijacked by stress and trauma. Mindfulness, meditative movement or exercises that involve a state of flow (for example dance, swimming drumming) has been shown to improve mental health and immune system functioning, especially for individuals who have been under the influence of high levels of cortisol. Practicing mindfulness through breath awareness, movement meditation, intentional relaxation or guided visualizations helps the brain experience states of peace in the present and increases the capacity to live and access a state of integration and flow. Increased mindfulness assists in the regulating of minds and bodies, improving health and the connection with self and others to support meaningful attuned relationships.

 


 

Resources

See my Mindfulness Meditation Guided Visualizations.

Davis, Daphne M.m PhD and Jeffrey A. Hayes, PhD. "What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?" American Psychological Association Website. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner.aspx. Accessed September 1, 2016

HelpGuide.org "Benefits of Mindfulness." http://www.helpguide.org/harvard/benefits-of-mindfulness.htm. Accessed on September 1, 2016

Karr-Morse, Robin and Wiley, Meredith. (2012). Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease. New York, NY: Basic Books

Mate, Gabor M.D. (2003). When The Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection. Hoboken, NJ: JohnWiley & Sons Inc.

Siegel, Daniel J. M.D. (2012) Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company Inc

Siegel, Daniel J. M.D. (2010) Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York, NY: Bantom Books

Young, Laura. M.D. PhD. (2011). Mindfulness Meditation: A Primer for Rheumatologists. Rheumatic Disease Clinics, Vol. 37, Issue 1, p63–75