When people come to the hospital, it is often because of some sort of physical symptoms. For some physical problems, diagnosis and treatment are clear. For example, if you have a broken leg your doctor can take an x-ray to confirm the break and put your leg in a cast. However, there are some health issues that are more complex. Moreover, they are affected by many different factors. For example, we know that the mind and the body have a close link and have a direct effect on each other. Learning about how they are linked may help you understand your symptoms and manage them more effectively.
The Mind-Body Link
You may already be familiar with phrases that describe the mind-body connection in day-to-day life such as something being a “pain in the neck”, making your “blood boil”, having a “gut feeling” or being “heart-broken”. These previous examples describe in a simple manner the way that the mind can have an effect on the body.
When we talk about the ‘mind’ here we refer to the collection of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, attitudes, memories, past experiences along with the personality that makes up a person’s internal world.
It is important to point out that we are not suggesting your physical symptoms are all in your head. The reality of your physical symptoms is not in doubt here when we talk about the mind and body being linked and that they have an effect on each other. It is important to make this clear because we know that some patients, at one time or another, have felt that their difficulties were dismissed by others, including healthcare professionals, as “all in their head”.
The Power of Thoughts
Even though we are not faced with saber-toothed tigers every day, life presents lots of situations that can be perceived as threatening and trigger this stress response. Our thoughts and judgments about situations have a very important role, determining whether this stress response is triggered or not.
For example, if you ran for the bus and immediately afterward had uncomfortable symptoms like a pounding heart and sweating, you might have the thought, “I’m not as fit as I used to be, maybe I need to go on a diet” and then you continue your journey as usual without any great change in how you feel. On the other hand, if you had a family history of heart attacks and had a recent diagnosis of high blood pressure yourself, instead of having normal thoughts you might have the thought, “I’m having a heart attack”, which will make you feel very frightened and call an ambulance. This example shows that the same experience, interpreted differently, can result in very different feelings and choices.
The Mind-Body Link in relation to health
The Digestive System
It is common to experience the feeling of an upset stomach (e.g. nausea, diarrhea, bloating or plain pain) during the times of stress. That is due to the presence of a lot of nerve connections between the brain and the gut. That is why sometimes the gut is called the little brain.
Most people have experienced this type of mind-body connection at one time or another. For example, you may have encountered a churning stomach when you were dreading something or experience the need to go to the toilet urgently before something important like an interview.
It is well known that the gut is affected by what is called ‘Fight-Flight’ reaction. It has even been suggested that having an empty bladder and bowel may have helped our ancestors flee from predators.
Similarly, people who have a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) say their symptoms are affected by stress.
People suffering from skin conditions, like eczema or psoriasis, notice that during stressful situations their symptoms can become worse and respond less well to conventional treatments.
These flare-ups in their conditions can, in turn, increase the stress they are already experiencing creating a vicious cycle. For example, people may worry about their skin’s appearance and how others will view them or be bothered by uncomfortable itching and the urge to scratch.
Changes in the way how the heart works are common in stressful or exciting situations. For example, stress or excitement can cause the heart to beat faster, thus raising the blood pressure. This is part of the ‘Fight-Flight’ response that our body performs to help you get ready to run away or fight the threat. Although these heart symptoms can be unpleasant they are not usually dangerous and have the tendency to subside by themselves after some time without doing any harm.
These normal changes in heart rate and blood pressure as a result of stress can be concerning for people with or without heart conditions. Worrying that your symptoms may be a sign of something serious can be very frightening. These worries and the stress and anxiety that go with them can increase these ‘Fight-Flight’-related heart symptoms, creating a vicious cycle.
Pain is not an easy symptom, it is a complex one that sometimes can be difficult to understand and treat. This is because it is a very personal and subjective experience. It cannot be seen on a scan or measured by a blood test. Pain is both a physical symptom and an emotional experience, which is affected by the mind and body link. For example, the pain you experience can be affected by the amount of stress, anxiety, and even depression you are also experiencing. Some pain conditions, like migraine and other headaches, can be triggered in some individuals by physical and emotional stress.