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Danielle Richardson

It’s Time to Take the Mind-Body Connection Seriously

No longer just a fringe New Age theory, science supports the positive benefits of mind-body therapies to minimize suffering and enhance wellbeing.

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THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION, once fringe New Age theory, has emerged as a bonafide medical phenomenon with evidence-based science to support it. Understanding the interconnectedness between our mental and physical states is especially useful for stress modulation.

Healthy stress, or eustress, keeps us productive, alert and upbeat. Unfortunately, modern life exposes us to ever more stimuli, increasing our points of contact with physical, mental and emotional stressors, leading to an overabundance of negative stress, or distress.

We know stress has a physiological effect on biological functions, but science is revealing the mind’s role in how we experience it. Neuroscientists led by Dr. Peter L. Strick, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute uncovered neurological data to support the theory of Mind-Body Connection. In the study, published in the journal Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences (Pnas), Strick, et. al. discovered several key neural networks that connect the cerebral cortex — particularly areas responsible for motor function — to the adrenal medulla, which is the area of the brain that produces our stress (or “fight or flight”) hormones. This could explain how mental states like stress, anxiety, and depression affect our body via neurotransmitters and offers a clue as to why bodily movement and exercise are a useful counterbalance to stress.

Scientists at The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, an NIH affiliate, are studying mind-body therapies including yoga, meditation, hypnosis, tai chi and electromyogram biofeedback. With science exploring the power of mind-body therapies to minimize suffering and enhance well-being, perhaps it’s time for you to strengthen your Mind-Body Connection. Here are a few ways to get started:

Move Your Body

Western science is discovering that moving the body can ease stress and psychosomatic illnesses. Mind-body movement includes practices like yoga and tai chi, but also walking or dancing. Find fun and easy ways to prioritize movement as a part of your healthy living routine.

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Viva Las Vagus!

The Vagus nerve is our 10th cranial nerve and the primary controller of the parasympathetic nervous system — responsible for our rest and digest responses. It’s the longest cranial nerve and modulates the psychophysiological connection between the brain, gut and internal organs. Yogis know that slow, deep, mindful breathing stimulates a parasympathetic response via the vagus nerve causing increased relaxation and decreased stress. This was confirmed by a study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine which showed deep abdominal breathing reduced sympathetic activity while enhancing vagal activity. Consider a daily diaphragmatic breathing practice.

Remember Non-Physical Health

Health has mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects. Pay attention to the physical manifestation of mental experiences and emotions, such as “butterflies in the stomach” or “feeling hot headed.” Oftentimes, physical sensations are accompanied by mental and emotional fluctuations. Enlist a therapist, clergy person, meditation teacher or other trusted counselor to help you in this area.

MBSR Technique

If you want to go deeper, find a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program in your area. Created in the 1970s by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR is an eight-week group course supported by peer reviewed, repeatable scientific evidence. Participants commit to 30-45 minutes of daily mindfulness meditation, mindful movement, and a weekly group class led by an MBSR certified instructor. The program has been shown to help participants better manage stress, anxiety, depression and chronic pain while improving general wellbeing.

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Dr. Danielle Richardson practices in Houston with Texas State Optical and runs a holistic wellness company, Fierce Clarity. She is a registered yoga teacher and hosts wellness retreats, yoga classes, and pop-up events for busy, professional women to help manage stress and avoid burnout. Follow her on Instagram at @fierceclarity

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