How many times have you heard someone say: “It’s all in your head”. Implying that whatever you may be feeling or experiencing is not real, or that it is so minimal that it doesn’t deserve attention. Well, a lot of research has gone into the workings of the brain, the mind, and emotions, and how these different aspects could influence the physical body and its physiology. It turns out that your mind, including your thoughts, and emotions, is exceptionally powerful and most definitely deserves your attention. Your thoughts and/or emotions have the ability to control or change the physiology of your body. I guess this doesn’t come as a huge surprise as it has been scientifically shown that stress, for example, induces the release of certain stress hormones in the body, and in turn alter the functioning of several biological systems, such as, the respiratory, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, and immune systems, to name a few. Having said that, to what extent do our minds have control over the functioning of our physical bodies? Would it amaze you to discover that your mind has the power to heal you from incurable diseases like diabetes, HIV, or even cancers? Or conversely, would you believe that your mind has the capacity to KILL you (and here, I am not referring to suicide)? Here is a great TEDx talk by Dr Lissa Rankin, whose research suggests that our bodies have the mechanisms for self-healing. However, our minds, together with a positive support network (family, friends, doctors), play an essential role in initiating this process. Very simply put, when you are sick, a nurturing environment, for example being attended to by a warm and compassionate carer or healthcare provider, is critical to shift your mindset to a more relaxed and happier state, which maximizes your body’s potential for self-healing.
In order to give a brief overview of how our bodies respond to stress, let’s focus a little on the nervous system. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls the involuntary or unconscious body functions, such as: heart rate, breathing, digestion, pupillary response, etc. The ANS branches into two divisions, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. These two opposing systems work together to regulate the body and maintain homeostasis. Without getting into too much detail, the sympathetic nervous system is activated when the body is under threat or stress. The body reacts by prepping it for a fight-or-flight response. This means shutting down or down-regulating certain biological functions, like the digestive and immune systems, in order to up-regulate other systems to provide the body with an immediate burst of energy to either physically fight off the threat or run away from it. On the contrary, the parasympathetic nervous system is triggered when the body is removed from ‘threat’ or stress. In other words, this pathway is activated when the body is relaxed. As it turns out, it is when the parasympathetic nervous system is switched on that the body’s self-healing mechanisms could occur.
In today’s society, you rarely have to encounter the threat of being eaten by a lion, in which case, the sympathetic nervous system would kick in to give you the energy to run away from the threat, and the parasympathetic nervous system would help your body return to normal once you are no longer in danger. Instead, nowadays our society is faced with chronic stress resulting from demanding work life, financial uncertainty, toxic relationships, and so on. These stressors, although not immediately life threatening, trigger the same stress response in the body as the lion scenario described earlier. Only that the body finds it difficult to get back into balance as the stimulus for stress is constant and hence, the sympathetic nervous system stays switched on, while the parasympathetic nervous system (the pathway to self renewal and healing) is suppressed.
So what are some things that we could do to bring more balance back into our lives? Well, this may sound stupidly obvious but not enough people actually take the time to do this, and that is to do something, ANYTHING, that makes you happy! Exercise is another great method to boost your ‘feel-good’ hormones and thereby tipping the balance towards a parasympathetic response. Your mindset and attitude are also essential to your general health. So be positive, surround yourself with good friends, meditate, and of course, practice Yoga! =)