There is no doubt that the mind and body have a connection. It can be seen in many ways, but when a person experiences stress, it provides a great illustration. Say a person is swimming at the beach when they look out in front of them and see a shark. Immediately, the brain recognizes the shark as a threat and a stressor. Hormones, including cortisol which is known as the stress hormone, are relayed through various parts of the brain. The reason for this relay is to prepare the body for action and employing either the flight or fight response. A person will either figure out how to get away from the stressor or prepare to fight the stressor. All of a person’s resources will be moved to the front lines. This means the hormones turn away from non-essential, unconscious functions like digestion and regulating blood flow toward more essential functions needed for survival. Once the stressor has diminished or has been eliminated, hormone levels and body functions return to normal. Understanding how stress impacts the brain can help explain why chronic stress and anxiety can be dangerous. Even though they are psychological concerns, they result in very real physical issues like high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and insomnia. It is an important illustration of the power behind the mind-body connection.
The term psychosomatic refers to the idea that physical issues are magnified by or are a result of psychological issues. For example, if someone has chronic migraines, it could the result of a number of things like having an allergy that triggers the severe headaches. However, it could also be a cause of consistent, high stress. Treatment can occur through the medical side like providing medication, but it can also occur from treating the stress. The problem with psychosomatic issues is that they can often distract people from the real problem. It would be like if someone had an infection but the person only treated the fever. When only the symptoms are treated rather than the problem, issues can still persist. Sometimes it is easy to get distracted by the symptoms, causing people to miss what might actually be causing it. Another concern is that psychosomatic symptoms can become severe if the issues are not fully addressed. Using the chronic stress example can illustrate this idea. If someone with chronic stress does not have awareness to manage their stress or make changes, the physical symptoms can result in potentially life-threatening issues like various cardiovascular diseases.
Regardless, it is imperative that psychosomatic symptoms be taken seriously and also addressed fully. These symptoms can linger and cause major problems over an extended period of time. Having awareness and insight are important tools to use. Practicing mindfulness, being present with in-the-moment emotions and thoughts, and meditation can be invaluable in achieving the ability to recognize personal issues. Even practicing certain exercises like deep breathing and noticing potential tension in the body can start building the mind-body connection. Becoming aware of emotions attached to certain tensions can be the next step in understanding the link between an individual’s mind and body. If a person is experiencing persistent symptoms that do not see to be resolving themselves through medical treatment, it may be important to look into psychological factors. Utilizing mindfulness can help a person become aware enough to seek treatment and avoid major long-term concerns. Once aware there are issues beyond the physical symptoms, a person can seek additional help and take steps toward experiencing holistic treatment of the mind and the body.
Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She also has a special interest in working with athletes and has been bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is in the process of becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant to further her expertise in sports psychology. Prior to her move to Abilene, Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.