Body-Mind Integration: Training Attention for Mental and Physical Health
Even before Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalysis movement, psychologists have argued why the body-mind concept is crucial to psychology.
The reasoning for this stems from the idea that physical conditions affect mental health and that mental conditions affect physical health.
Unlike wishes or dreams, our thoughts and emotions don’t just exist in the mind. feelings are, well, real, physical feelings.
People get “butterflies in their stomachs” on stage or on a first date, while other people who get angry easily describe themselves as “impulsive.”
The body maintains its physical health and ability to function. for example, even small actions like walking and fine finger movements depend on a healthy body.
but the mind houses your spirit and your motivation to function. These days, we have evidence that mental and physical health are so intertwined that studies of mind-body integration in psychology seem especially important (Taylor, Goehler, Galper, Innes, Bourguignon, 2010).
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defining mind-body integration
There are different approaches to understanding mind-body integration. Some researchers argue that mind-body integration is crucial in the medical field, since patients do not feel an obvious division between their bodies and their minds. therefore, clinicians should not make diagnoses that separate the mind from the body (davidsen et al., 2016).
A medical approach to mind-body integration is more concerned with treating patients superficially and avoiding treating symptoms without considering holistic solutions.
to summarize what was said by selhub (2007):
“In mind-body medicine, the mind and body are not seen as separate functioning entities, but as a functional unit. the mind and emotions are considered to influence the body, since the body, in turn, influences the mind and emotions”
In addition to strictly medical approaches, there are also mind-body integration models based on neurology. for example, taylor et al. (2010) discuss a series of psychophysiological models in which certain neurons and muscles affect mental states such as stress.
all models from various studies indicate a bidirectional effect driven by top-down and bottom-up factors.
In this case, top-down mechanisms are defined as those that start with mental processes in the cerebral cortex, and bottom-up mechanisms are those that start with sensory receptors.
let’s see an example in practice.
Mapping our emotions: investigating the physical presence of emotions
a 2013 study focused on where people experience different emotions in the body. this research constituted the first “map” that illustrated the links between our emotions and our bodily sensations.
In the study, a team of Finnish researchers induced different emotions in 701 participants and then asked them to color a body map of where they felt activity increased or decreased (nummenmaa, glerean, hari, & hietanen, 2014).
Study participants were from Western European countries (Finland and Sweden) and East Asian countries (Taiwan). Despite the cultural differences, the researchers found remarkable similarities in how the participants responded.
Researchers explain their findings:
“Most of the basic emotions were associated with sensations of heightened activity in the upper chest area, probably corresponding to changes in respiration and heart rate. similarly, sensations in the head area were shared with all emotions, probably reflecting both physiological changes in the facial area […] and felt changes in the contents of the mind triggered by emotional events.”
The following images represent the body maps of the six basic emotions. yellow indicates the highest level of activity, followed by red. black is neutral, while blue and light blue indicate low and very low activity, respectively.
Along with the basic emotions, here are the body maps for six more complex emotions:
You can find the original blog post here. It’s now time that we explore why we feel sensation with these corresponding emotions.
the physical impact of positive and negative emotions
Each emotion we experience has a different representation in the body. Let’s break down these core emotions and their physical responses:
happiness is the only emotion that fills the whole body with activity. this could indicate a sense of physical readiness that comes with a happy state and increased communication between the body and the brain. We normally feel safe when we are happy, so in this state, we can devote our full attention to experiencing ourselves as part of a pleasure-rich world around us.
This is another featured emotion that fills the body with activation, stopping just short of the legs. love is often intertwined with physical desire, so unsurprisingly, it triggers sensation in the reproductive organs more strongly than happiness.
the emotional focus of love is both the object of affection and the intensity of the emotions in the subjective self; therefore, activation is intense around the head and chest, but more difficult to notice in the lower extremities.
This emotion floods the head and chest areas with a very intense sensation. this pattern of activation corresponds to a focus on oneself, with resources and awareness drawn inward and away from the extremities.
Although surprise follows a similar pattern, the strength of the activation is much less pronounced, as resources are concentrated internally to prepare the body to face danger. Because surprise can be positive, negative, or neutral, the body experiences it in a way that reflects uncertainty about the triggering event.
anger stands out as the negative emotion with the most intense activation, particularly in the head, chest and hands. the angry body prepares for conflict by focusing attention and resources on parts of the body that might need to act.
When we imagine anger or a moment when we feel angry, many people describe an overwhelming desire to hit something. this aligns with the image scan where sensation floods our hands.
fear has a similar but much more discreet pattern of activation, as the body prepares to fight or flight, but does not necessarily seek outright conflict.
Evolutionally speaking, fear required an immediate thought: do I decide to run away from this predator or fight to the death? In modern terms, do I feel like I can stand my ground with this scary dog, or should I run away? therefore, it makes sense that we experience fear with a surge of sensations in the head.
Disgust draws the body’s resources further into the center of the body. This emotion causes the body to prepare to expel any harmful substance that has been ingested, hence the focus of activation along the digestive tract.
When we experience disgust towards other humans, we may feel a concentration of sensations in our vital organs, as a natural protective response to repulsion.
7. shame and contempt
Although shame and contempt have similar patterns of activation, contempt stimulates less activation in the chest. this may be because the focus of contempt is outside of oneself and the judgment of others. shame, on the other hand, focuses on a sense of personal failure and self-judgment for causing this to happen.
The depression of activity in the extremities is very pronounced in shame. perhaps this is because the body draws resources back to itself in a fight or flight response.
Anxiety is a form of long-term, low-grade stress. it activates the chest intensely and can lead to a sense of doom or dread, as experienced in panic attacks. People who experience panic attacks frequently report tightness and pain in the chest, and an inability to think beyond the pressing fear of the moment.
These feelings may correspond to the strain felt by the heart and lungs as they struggle to supply oxygen to a body under conditions of prolonged fear.
This has the most remarkable map of our negative emotions. it does not stimulate activation in any part of the body and decreases activation in the extremities.
In a state of depression, it is difficult to connect with the active self and the outside world. sadness does not suppress feelings in the head and chest and often contributes to a general lack of agency or activity.
how can we explain this mind-body integration?
Because emotions manifest in the body as physical sensations, it follows that physical sensations can produce corresponding emotions. molecular neuroscientist lauri nummenmaa explains it below:
“Emotions adjust not only our mental state, but also our bodily state. in this way they prepare us to react quickly to dangers, but also to opportunities […] the awareness of the corresponding bodily changes can subsequently trigger conscious emotional sensations, such as the feeling of happiness.”
For example, the warmth of a blanket wrapped around the shoulders on a cold day is likely to translate from a physical sensation of warmth to an emotional feeling of happiness and security.
The connection between our mind and our body is something we feel instinctively, but how much attention do we pay to bodily sensations at any moment?
To understand our own emotional life and that of the people around us, we need a deeper awareness, achieved through the practice of mindfulness and the development of bodily intelligence.
Take a moment to acknowledge how you feel physically right now, as well as your next emotional flood of joy, sadness, and calm. Over time, this can help you feel more in touch with these aspects of existence and give you a rich understanding of the entire connection between your mind and body.
body intelligence is a psychological method that highlights the importance of recognizing bodily sensations as a way to improve our health.
The first step is to recognize the internal signals and sensations that your body tells you.
the ins and outs of bodily intelligence
The body is subject to constant stressors, both external and internal (Antonovsky, 1993).
as an integral part of the human machine, it communicates what you need to survive and cope with stressors; we just need to actively listen.
When dealing with difficult emotions, maladaptive forms such as self-medication or the practice of denial are common ways people deal with undesirable feelings. What if we instead relied on these unpleasant feelings as messages from our body to our brain?
Although it is a relief at this time, a maladaptive coping mechanism can be detrimental to health. they don’t facilitate the long-term improvements we need to address the real source of discomfort. body intelligence offers tools to strengthen the mind-body bond and work towards positive wellness.
Bodily intelligence cannot eliminate disease, but it can tune you into what your body feels. can relieve certain symptoms of stress such as chest pain, headaches, heart rate variability, and others.
what to know more about the details of bodily intelligence? listen to this live happy podcast. explains the details and benefits of listening to the physical sensations of our body.
The following clip provides an example of the tools that can help us to be in tune with our body and how to relieve stress holistically.
duperly et al. (2008) found that for medical students, maintaining a positive attitude was crucial in their preventive health measures.
Students with a positive attitude were more accepting of preventative counseling before the stress or disturbance was completely consumed. This example of disease prevention is a key example of how attitude shapes other aspects of life and affects health.
So how do we influence this unconscious dynamic between our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations?
Below is a comprehensive list of techniques that help develop body intelligence, tune in to our attention, and increase body awareness for better physical and mental health.
body-mind integration techniques
The field of mind-body integration includes a number of disciplines and approaches. here is the main goal of this technique:
“The goal of mind-body techniques is to regulate the stress response system so that balance can be maintained and maintained, restore prefrontal cortex activity, decrease amygdala activity, and restore normal brain activity. hpa axis and locus ceruleus-sympathetic nervous system”
(selhub, 2007, p. 5).
The field of medicine includes a wide range of “alternative” techniques aimed at increasing awareness and strengthening the mind-body bond.
Five examples of these modalities include mindfulness, meditation, relaxation, biofeedback, and the three practices of yoga, t’ai chi, and qigong (Mcguire, Gabison, & Kligler, 2016). let’s explore this further.
“Mindfulness is characterized by dispassionate, non-evaluative, sustained moment-to-moment awareness of perceptible mental states and processes. this includes continuous and immediate awareness of physical sensations, perceptions, affective states, thoughts and images”
(grosman, et al., 2003).
mindfulness is a powerful tool in the treatment of mental health disorders, stress-related conditions, cancer, and cardiovascular conditions.
People who are prone to depression, anxiety, and stress-related conditions often engage in overthinking and ruminating. they also struggle to disconnect from their thoughts and worries, which can lead someone to burnout.
Mindfulness is vital for people who are struggling, as a way to direct attention to present experience.
fazekas, leitner, and pieringer (2010) cite the importance of accurate emotion detection as a way to practice effective self-regulation.
internal cues are a widely available way to develop body intelligence; For example, acknowledging “I feel anxious in my body today” actually causes the amygdala to relax. the body calms down when the mind recognizes what it is feeling (2010).
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is another example of mindfulness-based therapies. It is a structured course that offers its participants a new opportunity for life, health and well-being. Essentially, mindfulness redirects attention to the external environment so that we can escape the relaxation of our neural and negative thought loops, or pain and discomfort.
By interrupting previous thought patterns, these approaches slow the heart rate and calm the breath, which continues to relax the body and then floods it with more pleasurable neurotransmitters. this, in turn, creates a positive feedback loop.
This ted talk by translational neuroscientist catherine kerr is a great introduction to mindfulness. she explains how focusing on our toes can help reduce negative thoughts.
as kerr explains, mindfulness starts with the body and becomes aware of the details of the sensations we feel, for example starting with the toes. our sensory attention system is a gateway to a richer mind-body connection and the health of an attuned human being.
In traditional meditation, the main focal point for attention training is the inhalation and exhalation of air through the nose. Breathing research confirms that by being attuned to your breath and paying attention to it, your breath naturally slows down.
This helps the body relax, resulting in less anxiety, depression, and anger.
Below is an example of the available meditation resources. it is a traditional meditation practice that focuses on training the attention on the breath. even 3 minutes of meditation can soothe a stressed brain.
If you feel overwhelmed with all the resources available, consider trying one, every day, for a 5-minute session. maybe before dinner, or when you wake up, there’s time for you to reboot your brain.
3. relaxation techniques
there are times to be alert and stressed. many times, however, we don’t need the hyper-alert feeling of stress. How do we help ourselves relax? there are many ways.
progressive muscle relaxation (pmr) is an example of relaxation therapy known to develop body intelligence. pmr teaches us to systematically tense and then relax muscles, working one muscle group at a time. this process results in a reduction of physical stress and tension by increasing our focus on the body.
There are other relaxation techniques, including body scanning and other forms of self-care.
A pioneering technique for developing bodily intelligence is biofeedback. This is the use of scientific and physiological monitoring of the body to achieve awareness of body states with electrodes. emg, or electromyography, allows people to make changes to the state of their body (ancoli, peper, & quinn, 2011).
The evidence supporting biofeedback has been strong; it can reduce certain disorders such as high blood pressure and migraines. One of the most significant benefits of biofeedback is the self-direction it provides.
If you are interested in learning more about biofeedback and how it can provide effective treatment for different illnesses, please watch this full lecture from the University of California, San Francisco, Osher Center for Integrative Medicine:
Headaches, asthma, recurring abdominal pain, pelvic pain, and sleep disturbances are just a few of the ailments biofeedback can help with.
5. yoga, t’ai chi, qigong
These three physical practices focus on using body movements that draw attention to the internal experience of the present.
The slow and steady rhythm of the movements helps us to relax and reduce physical stress. they also create a focused state of mind that helps with negative emotions. A Harvard Health report explored the benefits of these three mind-body integration techniques, exploring how they help with anxiety and depression.
positive psychology and mind-body integration
In two recent studies, mind-body techniques helped with depression in children and adults.
a study by staples, atti, and gordon (2011) noted significant improvements in depressive symptoms and a reduced sense of hopelessness in 129 Palestinian children and adolescents in a 10-session mind-body skills group.
These mind-body skills included meditation, guided imagery, breathing techniques, autogenic training, biofeedback, genograms, and self-expression through drawing and movement.
after 7 months, the improvements still helped with ongoing difficulties and conflicts. even the damned sense of hopelessness was removed.
There are several positive psychology interventions that use mind-body integration (wong et al., 2015; zeller et al., 2004). For example, Jindani and Khalsa (2015) investigated the effects of a yoga program on participants with posttraumatic stress disorder. participants found the yoga intervention to be “highly effective.”
PTSD itself can also be thought of as a mind-body disorder, as symptoms can manifest in both the physical and mental bodies. a mind-body treatment plan seems necessary for this condition.
A review of “alternative medicines” (such as yoga, hypnosis, and meditation) found that they may be helpful in managing stress and affecting other mental conditions (Park, 2013). park says these findings support why mind-body treatments should be integrated into clinical psychology.
with all the evidence showing the impact of mind-body treatments in treating mental disorders, improving mental health, and fostering better physical health, why aren’t these practices still commonplace in clinical psychology?
positive psychologists are poised for this holistic approach to wellness to go mainstream.
mind-body integration is largely an untapped resource in the field of psychology. There are several different theories about mind-body integration as it relates to medical and psychological issues, and with more research, it may only be a matter of time before most psychologists incorporate these techniques.
If mind and body are truly integrated, rather than one side simply responding to the other, then a deeper connection between mind and body is key to overall physical and mental health.
A next step to strengthen these studies is to measure well-being by explicitly measuring physical and mental well-being. positive psychology teachings could also seek to teach people a more holistic understanding of themselves.
a greater sense of bodily intelligence, by learning to face life’s challenges, is related to other goals in the field of positive psychology. For example, teaching resilience to clients or practicing self-care for ourselves align with these goals to care for our bodies and minds.
a message to take home
The mind and body are the best tools we have to achieve positive well-being. It is imperative that we learn bodily intelligence and use it as part of the treatment and prevention of physical and mental illness.
practices like progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness-based stress reduction, meditation, mindfulness, biofeedback, and yoga are just a few ways to strengthen mind-body connections.
Until now, positive psychology interventions have included mind-body integration techniques. Anyone looking to improve their physical or mental health can benefit from this holistic approach to mind-body integration.
Which of the five practices could you incorporate into your routine and how? Are there other resources you use that help you or your clients with mind-body integrity?
We’d love to hear from you in our comments section below.
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