I am passionate about educating people about the crucial link between our minds and bodies when it comes to health and wellbeing.
I’ve become increasingly interested in this as a consequence of my own medical training, and subsequently my own and others experience of wellness and illness. Ironically, the medical model of disease belonging to certain parts of our bodies or organs still prevails, and Western medicine remains a proponent of us being able to treat illness in this compartmentalised way.
I don’t believe we can continue to see our heart as separate from our brain, gut and rest of our body. Many ‘alternative’ therapies (as they are called in the NHS) propose a holistic view of each of us, and indeed entire medical systems such as Ayurveda and Chinese medicine (which continue to be practiced in many parts of the world) look at the whole individual in the context of any ill health or disease.
And if we are to truly promote wellness we must enable each other to act as our own agents in wellbeing and learn to self-regulate on a whole system level, whether or not this wellbeing is also being supported by Western medicine (which is wonderful and has an awful lot to offer).
I’m fascinated by the disconnect that many of us seem to make between our minds and our bodies. And I have spoken about this before; it is supported in our culture, in our education system, in our attitude of ‘mind over matter’ (which seems highly prevalent in a lot of industries), in our frenetically busy lives. Not to mention traumatic experiences that unfortunately virtually all of us are exposed to at some point in our lives.
It is no wonder that we end up, perhaps unwittingly, escaping feeling and living in our thinking brains.
The reality is that before any thought, there was a bodily sensation. Before any emotion, there was a bodily sensation. Mind blowing. But true. Our vagus nerve is responsible for sending messages from the body to the brain, about the state of our internal world. And it is far busier (80-90% of it) in sending messages from the body up to the brain than it is from sending messages the other way. Essentially, with every microsecond we are receiving huge amounts of information from our bodies which is stating the way of the land.
It is then the brain’s job to interpret this information, and make sense of it. This can sometimes be helpful, for example ensuring that we run from a dangerous situation (and raise our heart rate, blood pressure, stress hormones, blood sugar etc in order to do so), or less helpful if we remain in this chronically activated state for long periods of time.
And unfortunately our lives are set up in a way where we are encouraged to remain activated for huge periods of time, due to the stress of our jobs, relationships, families, finances, lives. What we’re working with is a brain that evolved to hunt and run from life-threatening danger, in a world where we are constantly responding to our environments and detecting 'danger' without having the time to work out and feel into what is truly going on.
Chronic or long-term activation of these systems (which can broadly be described as fight or flight systems) can lead us into problems with chronic stress, which can then morph into anxiety, depression, digestive problems, fatigue, inflammation, heart problems…the list is probably endless.
What does this mean? And how can we work with this seemingly challenging situation?
Fortunately our bodies didn’t evolve to stay activated, and they are pretty amazing at self-regulating. So if we can tap into that power then we can learn to switch up our biology, which is pretty amazing. This requires us to work with our body and mind, simultaneously, in order to bring the system back into balance.
One thing which we do all day every day, unconsciously, is breathe. And if we do something as simple as doubling the length of our exhale compared to our inhale, or breathing deep into our lower bellies, then the messages carried by the vagus nerve to the brain will be different ones. The breath can be seen as a vehicle under both conscious and unconscious control, connecting our bodies to our brains, and bringing back regulation if we use it wisely.
Another thing we can do is bring awareness to different parts of our bodies; some people do this through a yoga practice, some through meditation, some through walking in the woods, some through having a shower. There is no need to do it in a specific way, but what we do need to do is slow down enough to notice sensation in the body.
Sometimes as we start to bring awareness into our bodies we notice more tension, sometimes even pain, and we are habituated to escape pain as human beings. So it can be common for the initial awareness to then trigger further fear, stress and subsequent disconnection. The answer here is to bring awareness back to the breath, the sensation, and begin to generate the qualities of curiosity, observation, compassion and loving kindness, rather than reaction.
If we can bring on line present moment awareness of sensation in our bodies together with breath, we have an alchemic combination which can start to transform our internal biology.
As always, the key to this is practice, for me mostly when I am not stressed or activated, in order to start to bring these practices online when we need them the most.
In this way we can reclaim the self-regulatory capacity of our bodies and over time bring our systems back into balance and wellness.