The mind and body are powerful allies that share a common language, staying in constant communication with each other.
The mind consists of a wide range of mental states such as thoughts, emotions, beliefs, attitudes, and images – that may be fully conscious or unconscious. Each mental state influences a positive or negative effect in the physical body.
How Do Thoughts & Feelings Affect Mental Health?
Do you find yourself mulling over criticisms instead of compliments? Do you spend hours agonizing over simple mistakes? You could be stuck in a rut of negative thinking. That feel-good attitude we all strive for is generated from the neurons in our brain. To understand the effect of our thoughts on mental health, we first need to know how the brain functions.
The chemicals your brain produces is directly influenced by your thoughts, feelings, relationships, and expectations. Positive emotions impact the brain’s prefrontal cortex – located in the front of the brain. When the prefrontal cortex is activated, this can result in increased creativity, attention span, and an increase in the brain’s capacity to process information. Cortisol levels decrease when we think positively, and the brain produces serotonin (the happiness hormone) in response. When serotonin levels are balanced, one feels happier, more focused, at peace, and emotionally stable.
But, it’s impossible to stay positive at all times. Repressed emotions, especially those revolving around stress, anger, or depression can quickly zap mental and physical energy. Negative feelings can stimulate the brain region known as the amygdala, which plays a role in fear and anxiety. The amygdala contributes to reward processing, decision making, and tying emotional meaning to our memories. Mood, memory, and impulse control may be affected, among many other important processes.
One example of this intuitive mind-body connection is how your body responds to stress.
The Perfect Stress Storm
We’ve all been there. You’re running late, sitting in traffic, watching closely and becoming more anxious as each minute passes by. The hypothalamus, a small area in the brain that helps stimulate key functions, sends the signal – send in the stress hormones! When presented with a potentially threatening situation, the sympathetic nervous system — responds by triggering a “fight-or-flight response,” releasing the stress hormone cortisol to make the body alert and prepared to face any threat head on. When you’re stressed, your body reacts as if it is under direct, immediate attack.
Some stress is good, helping to drive us to meet goals and deadlines. The problems roll in when the stress response is triggered by more common day-to-day experiences. This type of stress is called chronic stress, which can build up and take a real toll on your emotional and physical health. Feelings of despair and hopelessness can contribute to chronic stress which can throw off the body’s delicate hormone balance, deplete the brain chemicals required for happiness, and overwork the immune system.
Think you might be experiencing stress? Some common signs can include:
- Tense muscles
- Unwanted weight gain
- Impaired digestion
- Feeling tired or angry
- Feeling irritable or unfocused
- Not sleeping well
- Feeling anxious or sad
Building a positive mind-body connection
Our thoughts and overall state of mind are tools we can use to be self-aware. By becoming conscious of our mental states, we can more easily guide them in a healthier direction. Emotions (even negative) that are freely experienced and expressed without judgment tend to have a better impact on mental health.
Meditative and breathing exercises including meditation, yoga, or tai chi can help better equip your mind and body to counteract the harmful effects of stress. These tools can be used alone or combined with other exercises and methods to support total body relaxation.