The East and West tend to approach medicine – and the mind-body-spirit connection (or not!) – from different sides. We in the West have tended to separate our minds from our bodies (and often denied the existence of our spirits) and treated our bodies as machines that occasionally – and very inconveniently – break down. We then go to a doctor who gives us antibiotics or whatever, which fixes us – until the next time. Hopefully. Now we seem to be cottoning on to what “traditional” medicine has advocated all along: we are not separate from our bodies. We LIVE in our bodies and everything that happens in our minds, happens in our bodies. We experience ourselves – and the world – through our bodies. As Christine Caldwell notes in Getting our Bodies Back, “All the joy and pain and minute mundane happenings that life presents us are processed and expressed through our bodies”.
Actually, when we think about this idea that our bodies are connected to our minds, we know it to be true: think about how your tummy felt the last time you had to do a presentation to a group of managers at work, or even when you went on a first date. Think about that tension headache every exam time when you were at school and college. And think about how your neck and shoulders (and quite probably your digestive bits) tense up every time you have to pick up your husband’s socks off the floor even though the laundry basket is RIGHT THERE! But somehow, while it is easy to accept butterflies in our tummies or tension headaches as a bodymind connection, when it comes to bigger things – illnesses, disease – we are reluctant to believe that our emotions can affect our bodies.
All those emotions running around our bodies are, as scientist Candice Pert discovered, neuropeptides (that is, chemical messengers that are secreted by the brain, immune system and the nerve cells, and which carry information from the mind to the body and back again) which connect onto cells in our bodies via receptors and which transmit information into the cells, and influence their behaviour. “The truth is that you are little more than a chemistry set. All your thoughts and feelings get translated into chemicals that fire off throughout your body, altering the chemical composition and behaviour of your cells,” says Deb Shapiro, author of Your Body Speaks your Mind. “In other words each part or system of your body is listening and responding to your mental chatter, your every thought and feeling.” So our emotions affect us physically.
All of this is not to say that there are no outside causes of illnesses – you just need to watch a Dettol ad on TV so see those gazillions of lurgies on our toilet seats, chopping boards and – eeuw – our computer keyboards – to know that there are bacteria and the like just waiting to pounce on us. But we also know that when colds and flu are doing the rounds, not everyone in the office gets sick. Perhaps those are the people who are less stressed and run down, and – dare I say it – happier and more relaxed and so the germs waiting to attack simply move onto the next much easier, more vulnerable victim.
While we are in no way suggesting we CAUSE our own illness (well, not really – but that’s the subject for another day) we are suggesting it might be an idea to think about how what goes wrong with our bodies is connected to our minds and that we would do well to consider not just the food we eat and the exercise we take to keep our bodies healthy, but also the thoughts we think and the anger we swallow down. As studies have shown, happiness and optimism seem to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and high blood pressure (amongst others), while depression can worsen heart disease and the like.