Mind and Body: Turning Connection into Advantage

by Shachi D. Shantinath, Ph.D.

Originally published at www.HealthandAge.com, 2000.

Introduction

Ancient cultures and philosophers first made reference to the mind-body connection, and now modern research confirms that this connection indeed exists. One place where this connection is very strong is the relationship between your emotions and the production of stress hormones such as epinephrine (also called adrenaline) and cortisol.

When people experience heightened emotions, due to stress, upset or a related cause, they produce more stress hormones. The more often the stress and upset occurs, the more hormones the body secretes. And this means: increased wear and tear on your heart; a decrease in your immune system’s ability to respond and protect you from bacteria and viruses; and an increased risk of depression and burnout.

Stress, emotions and health

While stress and negative emotions are two different entities, they are often intertwined. Sometimes, stress can trigger negative emotions. Other times, negative emotions such as anxiety and worry may cause a person to behave in a way that creates even more stress for themselves.

Stress in and of itself is not bad, and a little bit of it helps us to improve our performance. But when stress becomes too much, it can be harmful. Likewise, everyone experiences negative emotions from time to time, which in small amounts, are not harmful to health. But when negative emotions become part of an on-going way of responding to situations, the risk of illness increases.

In particular, research shows that an excess of anger and anxiety (along with variations of anxiety such as excessive worry), can be harmful to your heart. These emotions increase your physiological responses to situations, which in turn creates an added burden for your heart. Too much stress is also associated with an increased risk of depression.

Taking action against your negative emotions will achieve two things: first, you will reduce the some of the harmful consequences of stressful events in your life; second, you will reduce the chances that you will perceive situations as stressful, thereby reducing the number of times you will experience negative emotions. And both of these results, in turn contribute towards optimal health.

Understanding negative emotions

Emotions are made up of two components: thoughts and physiological reactions. How you view a situation affects how you will react to it.

If you are feeling scared, worried or anxious, chances are that you are expecting something bad to happen. If you feel angry, it is likely that, underneath that anger, there is a feeling that you have been wronged or that the situation is unjust.

When you feel any of these negative emotions, it is likely that your breathing begins to get faster than usual, as does the rate at which your heart beats. The muscles in your shoulders, arms and back may become tense. You may experience unpleasant feelings in your stomach.

Stop negative emotional reactions

You can reduce the intensity of your negative emotional response to a situation by looking for the underlying assumption or thought. If you are worried, ask yourself what you are worried about, and why you are worried. Perhaps you fear a “worst possible outcome”, when in fact, it is not likely to happen. If you feel angry, try to understand why you are upset. Look for your underlying thoughts. Many times, people feel angry when they think that someone has deliberately hurt them.

Find an alternate perspective

If you are angry, worried or upset, challenge yourself to find a different perspective or explanation that can reduce the intensity of your emotions. If a neighbor is unpleasant towards you, you can tell yourself that maybe he or she is having a bad day, and so, not take it personally.

When situations and people upset you, try to see things in terms of the big picture. Most likely your entire happiness does not depend upon one situation, or one person. While it is true that situations and people can make life unpleasant and difficult at times, you have the means to not let them turn into threats to your health and well being.

Pay attention to your breathing

When you find yourself angry or upset, stop and take a look at how you are breathing. Has your breathing become suddenly faster than normal? If so, slow yourself down and breathe more slowly and deliberately. For more information on how proper breathing can help you manage your negative emotions effectively, please see the link below to the article “Take a deep breath… and relax”.

Practice leads to long term benefits

Turning the mind-body connection to your advantage takes practice, but the results are worth the effort. Once you master this process, you have a life long skill that is always at your disposal.

Practice consists of regularly doing deep breathing for periods of ten to 15 minutes per day. Practice also consists of looking at your responses to situations, especially when you experience negative emotions, and searching for alternative perspectives.

Take examples of upsetting situations from your past, and use them to practice looking for alternate perspectives. Review them, and without being critical of yourself, see if you could have avoided a misunderstanding by changing your perspective. Maybe there was something that someone did that that made you angry. Try to understand the thought that was underneath the anger. Then try to challenge that thought with a perspective that is less upsetting.

Start with simple examples of upsetting experiences first, which involve less important people in your life – such as shop-keepers or waiters in restaurants. Then, see if you can look at instances in your family, and among co-workers, and find alternate perspectives that could have eased a tense or upsetting moment.

Turn connection into advantage

When you do the above steps, you train yourself to respond to difficult situations in a way that reduces the likelihood of negative mind-body synergy. Instead, you increase the chances of creating a healthier, more positive mind-body synergy.

When you quickly change your thoughts to less upsetting ones, your body will secrete fewer stress hormones (which are damaging). When you quickly change from fast to slow and deep breathing, you inhibit your mind’s ability to feel upset.

You may still experience negative emotions, but you will feel them less intensely. And the less intensely you feel them, the better you can function. And the better you can function, the better you will feel about yourself, even if things are not going as you would like them to.

Why practice?

The benefits of practice include less anxiety or anger in response to upsetting situations. Remember, anger, anxiety and worry interfere with your sense of well being. They are a waste of your energy and will leave you feeling drained. More important, too frequent and too intense negative emotions can harm your health.

Lastly, ask yourself whether it is better to invest a bit of time now and reap the long-term benefits of good health, rather than risk losing time if you become sick in the future.

Remember

Pay attention to your thoughts, find alternate perspectives and slow down your breathing whenever you are upset. Do this, and you will turn the mind-body connection to your advantage.

Copyright S.D. Shantinath, Ph.D. All rights reserved.