Mindfulness and the Body – Part Four

Mindfulness and the Mind-body Connection

The substantial and significant link between mindfulness and stress reduction is centered within the mind- body connection. Although Western medicine has tended to view the mind-body connection as pseudoscience or a fringe concept, this attitude is changing as neuroscientists discover and chart the neural pathways that connect thoughts and emotions to physiology. This exciting field of science has established that thoughts and emotions are indeed interconnected with the physical process of the body.

When you experience stress, the body produces hormones such as cortisol and neurotransmitters such as epinephrine and norepinephrine. Physiological responses to stress have been crafted by our evolution as a species. In prehistoric times, when a person encountered a life-threatening situation such as being attacked by an animal, the body needed to handle the emergency immediately. To do so, the body’s physical energy is redirected in ways that help us fight, flee, or freeze in response to any danger, which is why this reaction has come to be known as the fight, flight, or freeze response.

Life is different now, and while most of us seldom face immediate, life-threatening dangers such as an attacking animal, we do face a multitude of daily stressors, and the body doesn’t always know the difference. As a result, the fight, flight, or freeze response can arise due to being stuck in traffic, feeling overwhelmed at work, or worrying about finances or health. How we respond has less to do with the actual event than how we make meaning of the event (Siegel 2001). If your brain perceives danger even when there isn’t an imminent physical threat and this automatic reaction occurs repeatedly and remains unchecked, your level of stress can build over time. When cortisol and the neurotransmitters epinephrine and norepinephrine continue to surge through your body, you can go into a kind of hyperadrenaline overdrive. Your health will suffer, as this condition takes energy away from the immune system and other important physiological systems, leaving them less able to perform their functions.

The Autonomic Nervous System

To understand how stress harms the body, it’s helpful to become familiar with the autonomic nervous system. This part of the nervous system works at an involuntary level to regulate vital bodily functions, including the brain, heart, respiration, and many functions of the internal organs and glands. It’s comprised of two neural pathways: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous systems. These pathways have opposing functions that are complementary and serve to balance each other. You can think of the sympathetic system as an accelerator and the parasympathetic system as a brake.

The brain seems to constantly be evaluating whether situations are safe or not. When it detects a potential threat, it has three options: fight, flee, or freeze. When the brain thinks it can take action against the threat, whether by fighting or by fleeing, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, creating many physiological changes to support heightened activity, such as shallow breathing, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and the release of endorphins to numb pain. Simultaneously, less crucial functions, such as the immune, digestive, and reproductive systems, slow down or temporarily come to a halt. This response can enable a firefighter to carry a three-hundred-pound man down twenty flights of stairs or help you run faster and farther than you normally could. On the other hand, if the brain thinks the situation is hopeless and no action will help, it opts for the freeze response, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which lowers blood pressure and heart rate, which can aid in immobilizing the body and storing energy. In extreme situations, this can cause fainting.

Once the brain decides that you’re out of danger, it activates systems that rebalance the body. In a personal communication, psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, codirector of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center and author of The Mindful Brain, said, “The key to a mindful approach to stress involves activating a self-engagement system that likely involves attuning to the self and creating an inner sense of love without fear, which may be at the heart of the relaxation state.”

In neuroscience, emotions and thoughts are viewed as being comprised of chemicals and electrical impulses that affect multiple physiological systems, including immunity, the musculoskeletal system, digestion, circulation, and respiration, and as a result, emotions and thoughts can be contributing factors in both health and illness. And because the brain doesn’t distinguish between psychological and physiological danger, activating the same physiological responses in either case (Siegel 2001), something as simple and innocuous as waiting in line or dealing with traffic can set off the stress reaction. When day-to-day stress is prolonged and seldom subsides, your body doesn’t get a chance to rebalance itself, and the effects can be disastrous, contributing to a long list of ailments, including high blood pressure, muscle tension, skin problems, anxiety, insomnia, gastrointestinal and digestive complaints, and a suppressed immune system, which compromises your ability to fight disease.

The information in this post is directly provided from the Workbook- “A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook By Bob Stahl, PH.D and Elisha Goldstein, PH.D

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