Mind-Body Medicine is an expanding medical paradigm in western medicine that seeks to address all aspects of human wellbeing. This type of care is often referred to as integrative care and takes into account physical, psychological, social, emotional, and spiritual aspects of wellbeing. This article discusses the heritage of mind-body medicine, as well as addresses what mind body medicine is and discusses entry points to understand the connection between mind and body.

Inherited Dualism

Philosopher René Descartes was an enlightenment thinker and laid much of the foundation for modern (western) scientific thinking. Specifically, he laid the groundwork for Cartesian dualism – a theory or system of thought that regards a domain of reality in terms of two independent principles, especially mind and matter. Descartes was concerned with “substance dualism,” (aka mind body dualism) which asks questions around the nature of the mind/mental phenomena as nonphysical and the body is purely physical. This questioning leads to the mind-body problem: if our minds are purely non-physical and our bodies are purely physical how can the two interact? This line of thought and understanding of the world paved the way for mind-body separation in medicine, a paradigm that remains heavily influential in the modern biomedical model.

“Medicine became an art of treating our parts, not our whole.” Krista Tippett

Mind-body dualism carries with it a history characterized by division, disconnection, and uncoupling. It separates the body from the mind in clinical understanding, leading to silos of knowledge and failure to acknowledge the profound integration between the two. The brain is often conflated with the mind, and in so doing disconnects the workings of the brain from that of the body – an inherently unsustainable paradigm for looking at wellbeing. Seeing the mind/brain as separate from the body has facilitated medical reductionism, informing the idea of treating the parts rather than the whole, and underpins the artificial separation of “physical” and “mental” disorders in health care. This inherited paradigm informs ‘disease care’ and symptom treatment rather than health care and root cause understanding. As our understanding of the human whole continues to evolve, it also requires that we reckon with inherited systems of thought and recognize where they do and do not contribute to our healing. Dualism simply isn’t a big enough word, a big enough concept, to hold the complexity and interconnectedness of our whole selves and our healing.

The Case for Connection

How we conceptualize a discipline or problem intimately shapes the solution. Separating mind and body means separate solutions, but connecting them opens realms of integrated resolutions. Brené Brown defines connections as, “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from relationship.” Extending this understanding, when we see the mind and body as intimately connected,  see, hear, and value this relationship, we create energy with the strength to help us heal.

Mind-body medicine allows us to use the mind to help heal the body and use the body to help heal the mind. We can still see them as individual elements, but rather than islands we can understand that the interact and influence one another. Specifically, science in epigenetics, trauma, polyvagal theory, and mental health are illuminating insights that our intuition has always known – we are whole. In Jewish thought, the notion of the soul – nephesh – is not something preexistant but emergent, meaning our spirit/mind/soul is formed through our physical experiences and relationships. Spiritual concepts such as nephesh combine and inform mind body paradigms in ways that open space for healing rather than reduce it.

“Science is yielding knowledge of our brains that is an everyday form of power for softening the gap between who we are and who we want to be, as individuals and as a species. Across social & medical disciplines, we are gathering a radical new understanding of the nature of human vitality and wholeness.” Krista Tippett

A specific and widely accepted example of the connection between the mind and body is the placebo effect. The placebo effect is the power of belief (your thoughts) heal you. This phenomena shows that our minds directly effect our bodies.

Defining Mind-Body Medicine

Researcher and author Esther Sternberg defines mind-body medicine as: “interactions among brain, mind, body & behavior & ways in which emotional, mental, social, spiritual & behavioral factors influence health.” In other words, Mind-Body Medicine is a medical paradigm that accounts for the whole human. Sternberg is a proponent of this paradigm because she believes in its ability to define health as something other than the absence of disease and supports how it enhances the capacity for self-knowledge and self-care.

Interest in mind-body medicine developed with the introduction of Asian healing systems into American culture. Examples include Herbert Benson’s research on the relaxation response and Jon Kabat Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based programs. Juxtaposing eastern and western paradigms created a rich environment to think about ways of healing and led to a much greater popularity of belief in mind body connection.

Grounds for Whole Healing

Neurohealth is a mind-body paradigm, embracing the connection between body and mind in sleep, exercise, nutrition, and mindfulness. Mind-body medicine also has particular groundedness in practices such as gratitude, optimism, and resilience. Each of the topics below are fertile ground to explore the connection of mind and body, and utilize their relationship to heal.

Healing with Nutrition

As we saw in previous articles (Using Your Brain to Support Your Gut & The Brain in Your Gut), the brain and the gut are extensively connected. This integration means that the body speaks loudly through messages between our guts and brains (think upset stomach with anxiety, butterflies with excitement, etc). Dr. Nicole LePera writes, “The direct line between the gut and the brain makes each meal an opportunity for healing and nourishment.” The inside of your digestive tract is contiguous with the outside world. Your nutrition and gut health practices are also directly brain health practices. There is an emerging field in Ayurvedic medicine called Ayurnutrigenomics, which sets out to address food as medicine based on individual patient constitutional make up. Food as medicine and food as connection between body and mind is a is a powerful example of mind-body medicine in action.

Healing with Sleep

Sleep is a time of ultimate healing – it is where our bodies repair and replenish. In modern culture, sleep disorders are at epidemic levels. Anyone with Insomnia knows that racing thoughts and mental turmoil impacts our body’s ability to sleep. Just as tension in our minds leads to lack of sleep (and therefore lack of healing), ease in our minds can facilitate rest. Specifically, activating our parasympathetic system through breathing and other practices represents the connection between mind and body with sleep.

Healing with Movement

Lots of research has shown the connection between exercise and mood. Exercise has psychological, physiological, biochemical, and immunological mechanism by which to exert a positive influence on mental health. What this research shows is that moving your body makes your mind feel better – more connective tissue between your mind and body! Specifically, exercise helps to widen the window of stress tolerance and support resilience.

Healing with Nature

“Forest Bathing,” (or in Japanese “Shinrin-yoku) was coined in 1982 by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture. Since then, research has shown that spending time in in nature can reduce physiological and psychological symptoms of stress. Time in nature has also been shown to have benefits for people learning from depression. Learning that putting our bodies in nature helps to calm our minds is an inspiring example of the mind body connection.

Healing with Resilience & Optimism

Optimism, the tendency to expect a good outcome, has been shown to have a positive effect on wellness, specifically with breast cancer, chronic pain, and spinal cord injuries. Resilience is the ability to recover or “bounce back” after negative experiences. Being unable to recover from stressful situations, having compromised resilience, is linked with nervous system dysregulation. Higher resilience is correlated with quicker cardiovascular recovery, as well as greater recovery from illness and trauma. Resilience is both the mind and the body’s ability to recover. Together, optimism and resilience demonstrate ways that mindset is connected to bodily wellbeing

Healing with Play & Humor

Play is an experience that teaches our nervous systems and neural circuitry how to switch from flight/fight/freeze (sympathetic activation) to social engagement (parasympathetic activation). Playful situations are safe and controlled environments where our bodies can learn how to move in an out of these two states and practice balance, teaching us how to leave and return in situations that are less controlled. Engaging our minds in imaginative play teaches our bodies how to move through different situations. Humor and laughter have been shown to reduce inflammation in the body and other physiologic stress markers. Together, play and humor show us that joy, delight, and fun are another intimate connection between mind and body.

Healing with Grit & Gratitude

Grit and gratitude are both psychological factors that can be cultivated and have been shown to contribute to wellness. Grit is perseverance in the face of adversity or challenges. Gratitude is the quality of being thankful. Both of these elements have been found to impact wellbeing, again displaying the connection of mind and body.

Remaining Gaps

Mind-body paradigms are doing a lot to help in the treatment of chronic diseases and in respecting healing as a whole body, whole hearted endeavor. That being said, and amidst all of its benefits, mind-body medicine does run the risk of placing too much emphasis (and pressure) on the role of the individual. When your thoughts have the power to make you sick or make you well, it is important to acknowledge your agency and ability to heal. However, it is also incredibly important that systemic diseases such as racism, poverty, and lack of FOOD SYSTEM PROBLEMS are not placed solely on the shoulders of an individual. In other words, if you are sick as a result of broken systems, your struggles with healing are not your fault. We cannot expect healing for individuals in a society that is sick, and it is unacceptable to place the health failing of a society on the shoulders of an individual. When systemic issues are not addressed, mind-body medicine can precipitate guilt in people suffering with the systems of larger problems.

Mind-body medicine also still functions off of a separation between mind and body, and there is more integration work to be done in connecting mental health to physical health. Mental health is health, and health is mental health.

While there is still ground to cover in treating the whole human and in making whole systems, mind body medicine is exciting in how it respects the beauty of interconnectivity between mind and body.