To accomplish the highest level of health, it is important to know and accept that the mind and body are tightly intertwined. This concept itself is far from new, but knowing how to leverage the connection is becoming increasingly intriguing.
More than a century ago, Harvard psychologist Walter Bradford Cannon drew people’s attention to the mind-body connection when he described the physiologic changes during the fight-or-flight response to stress. Forty years later, endocrinologist Hans Selye expanded on Cannon’s work by describing the general adaptation response to stress. In doing so, he touched on the impact of stress on the physiologic system during various stages — alarm, resistance, and physical exhaustion (and even death) if the stressor exceeds the body’s capacity.
The revelations of the mind-body connection continue to surface as new studies and research bring more detailed insights about the phenomenon. In fact, enormous amounts of data corroborate the bidirectional mind-body relationship, such as the connections between anxiety and physical pain, depression and heart disease, and depression and anxiety with gut inflammation.
With clear indicators that stress infiltrates the body on the cellular level, it’s important for you to tend to your mental health now in order to see improved mental and physical outcomes in the near future.
Stress at the Cellular Level
In 2018, biologist Martin Picard and neuroendocrinologist Bruce McEwen unveiled the potential reasons behind the body’s intimate relationship with the mind that dug deep — tapping into the cellular level. They found that stress impacts the cell’s energy factories, also known as the mitochondria. These tiny organelles produce energy in almost every cell in the body (except red blood cells). And when a cell’s energy production gets hit, so does the entire body.
Because these energy factories interact intimately with one another within the cell, stress on the cellular level easily compounds. At first, the mitochondria try to correct the cellular changes caused by stress, but they can be overwhelmed and forced to surrender. With this sort of stress-induced cellular numbness, toxic free radicals accumulate and damage cellular DNA. In turn, when the mitochondria cannot produce the energy that the cell needs, a waterfall of physical ailments surface, such as fatigue, skin diseases, heart disease, accelerated aging, and more.
In my clinical practice, I have seen stress take a toll on the physical bodies of many patients. For example, after the death of her husband, a patient became increasingly stressed and precipitously developed dementia. Another patient, who always made light of his stress, developed Parkinson’s disease. It’s clear that psychological stress eventually damages the body, and the mitochondrial hypothesis explains why.
5 Steps to Improve Your Mind-Body Connection and Combat Cellular Fatigue
Consider the following techniques as ways to recalibrate your mind-body connection for better health.
1. Utilize mindfulness-based stress reduction.
When it comes to effectively managing stress and seeing results on the cellular level, mindfulness practices can be very helpful. To be mindful, close your eyes, focus your attention on your breath, and ignore your mental chatter. If your attention drifts away, gently bring it back to your breath. Studies show that mindfulness might have many effects on your biology, too. It can change your brain’s response to stress, decreasing some of the stress hormones and, therefore, protecting your mitochondria.
2. Learn about transcendental meditation.
Transcendental meditation (TM) has been shown to lessen the burden of stress. The practice of TM requires a teacher and involves repeating a mantra (a short phrase) over and over again. If your attention wavers, you gently start the repetition again. TM reduces stress, depression, and burnout. At a cellular level, this act of meditation can also decrease the oxidative stress that damages cells.
3. Change up the scenery.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, one of the most immediate steps you can take is removing yourself from the environment. Go on a short vacation — leisure and free time have the ability to distract people from stress and boost their mood. Interestingly, vacations can change gene expression in a way that improves stress regulation and immune function. Venturing out to a green space can also help reset your mind-body connection and clear your head. Higher levels of green space lower stress levels and improve cortisol levels — one of the stress hormones that impacts mitochondria.
4. Learn to unfocus.
Take a 15-minute booster break at work to recharge or use one of the unfocus methods that I describe in my recent book. Unfocusing includes such techniques as napping for up to 15 minutes, which will improve your concentration for up to three hours. Especially if you have not slept well, a nap can be considerably restorative because poor sleep negatively impacts mitochondrial DNA. Also, naps might decrease the stress-inducing impact of cortisol on mitochondria.
5. Feed your cells.
Although it might be common knowledge, don’t forget that eating well and exercising can do wonders when it comes to decreasing stress. In fact, diet-induced obesity can worsen mitochondrial health, and too much sugar causes similar effects. Appropriate calorie restriction might improve antioxidant defense and oxidative stress, thereby protecting mitochondria. Furthermore, taking an exercise break — such as a brisk walk — in the middle of your day has the power to strengthen mitochondrial health.
Think of what you might be doing to every cell in your body by not taking the initiative to combat the stressors in your life. Do you really want to jeopardize your future health by not acting today? The mind-body connection shouldn’t be underestimated. As much as it can wreak havoc when unbalanced, the same connection — when healthy — can also bring harmony to a once-stressful life.
Srini Pillay, M.D., is the CEO of NeuroBusiness Group and the award-winning author of numerous books, including “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind,” “Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear,” and “Your Brain and Business: The Neuroscience of Great Leaders.” He also serves as an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the Executive Education Program at Harvard Business School.
How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.