The Power of the Mind/Body Connection
Long before modern-day medicine existed, Eastern approaches to health and wellness recognized the power of the mind/body connection. Meditation, acupuncture, and self-compassion were a regular part of caring for the mind and body. Today, both medical and mental health professionals understand more about the scientific connection between our physical and mental wellbeing. Recently, I've been doing some research on the power of the mind/body connection and was surprised to learn how deeply rooted they are with one another.
The Amazing Vagus Nerve, Central to the Mind/Body Connection
I hadn't heard of the vagus nerve when I started researching the mind/body connection, but what I learned was fascinating. According to an article on MedicalNewsToday,1 the vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body, extending from the top of the brain stem and traveling throughout the body. It participates in the network linking the heart, lungs, and stomach to the brain.
The vagus nerve has several primary functions. It plays a role in the sensory experiences we have in our abdomen, heart, lungs, and throat (including taste). It provides the movement needed in our neck for speaking and swallowing. It plays a significant role in controlling inflammation throughout the body and participates in digestion, heart rate, and breathing. The vagus nerve is a major player in physical health.
You might wonder what that means for your mental health. As it turns out, the vagus nerve is a significant contributor here too. Your vagal function has a lot to do with how fearful, stressed, or relaxed you feel. It communicates with the gut and diaphragm, giving you a "gut" feeling about potential danger and activates or regulates your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure based on your perception of risk or safety. If you are chronically stressed or anxious, your vagal nerve can become overactive, causing a host of mental and physical health conditions. As someone who struggles with anxiety and job stress, this information caught my attention.
Use the Mind/Body Connection to Heal Yourself
Remarkably, there are several physical and mental practices we can employ to increase the health or "tone" of our vagus nerve.2 We can:
- Take a cold shower -- I know that may not be pleasant, but this Chinese practice can stimulate an underperforming vagus nerve.
- Meditate -- Meditation seems to have endless benefits and engaging in a self-compassion meditation like the Buddist inspired loving-kindness meditation can increase emotional wellbeing and reduce physical pain.
- Engage in deep breathing exercises -- In my video at the bottom of this article, I share one of my favorite stress-relieving breathing exercises.
- Take care of your gut health -- Eating a healthy diet improves the functioning between the stomach and brain, encouraging both digestive and mental health.
- Be joyful -- Since the vagal circuit is involved in both emotion regulation and cardiac functioning, engaging in activities that release oxytocin and serotonin (like laughing, singing, or hugging someone we love) can improve our mood and physical wellbeing.
Poor vagal tone can lead to a myriad of physical and mental health conditions. I suffer from arthritis pain which exacerbates my depression. When my pain is under control, my mood is much better. Knowing that inflammation is a primary contributor to arthritic pain motivates me to understand my mind/body connection. I suggest you do your own research and see how you can improve your physical and psychological health by paying more attention to the power of your mind/body connection.
Psy.D., H. (2019, February 20). The Power of the Mind/Body Connection, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, August 22 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/livingablissfullife/2019/2/the-power-of-the-mindbody-connection