Your eyes see the words on this page, your brain processes the information, your thoughts about it may influence your belief system. You may make changes in your life as a result of what you learn. Maybe you decide to use the affirmations I share at the end of the article. These daily affirmations resonate with your heart and influence your emotions…
After a few weeks, you notice you feel more energetic, you are happier and realize you haven’t had a chronic headache episode in a while. You feel more connected to your loved ones and feel a renewed passion in your work. Your skin blemishes clear up. Somehow you have more time to do the things you love…
All those occurrences are steeped with connection! Today’s leading experts are just beginning to uncover the mysteries of the mind and how our thoughts and emotions affect the workings of our physical body and internal systems. In this article, we will explore ancient wisdom and some of the latest research on this topic, to discover what there is to know about how our thoughts and emotions can influence our physical wellbeing.
A key place to start, is to discuss how thoughts and emotions interact. Thoughts arise in our brain, while emotions can be more attributed to the heart. The elegant relationship between the heart and mind is always at work: thoughts can give rise to emotions and feeling emotions can inspire thoughts (many of your favorite poems or song lyrics were born this way!). This symbiotic dance can generate the most beautiful as well as the most devastating experiences in our lives.
Thoughts and emotions can both be triggered by internal (a memory) and external (going on a date with someone new) stimulus. We can all relate that thinking happy thoughts can create a positive feeling in the body, while negative thoughts can put us in “a bad mood” and might even make us feel physically sick (think of a child that stays home from school with a stomach ache because they are worried about a big test). Of course, we all have our ups and downs, but it’s when we stay too often on the negative side of the spectrum that chronic physical symptoms become a concern. As author Napoleon Hill famously quoted, “What you think, you become…”
The idea that thoughts and emotions can manifest into physical symptoms in the body is nothing new. The interdependence of the emotional and physical body has been documented extensively in ancient practices such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda. The philosophy in TCM is that each emotion is connected to an organ system by a flow of energy, and when imbalances occur certain symptoms arise. (1)
The following chart outlines the TCM associations:
TCM Five Element Theory
As an example, in this model, it would be proposed that fueling the body with under nourishing or “junk” food could lead to an impact on our emotional wellbeing and create an emotional experience of anxiety, etc from the imbalance created in the stomach. The stomach is considered the altar of the body in many holistic approaches to healing, and there is considerable evidence that what we put in our bodies can affect our brain via the brain-gut axis (read more about it in this previous blog post!).
Similarly, the thoughts we “digest” would be associated with affecting our biological systems. The effects of chronic negative thought patterns leading to emotions such as worry, would then affect the stomach and/or spleen – taking us back to the earlier mentioned example of the child having an upset stomach because they were worried about a big test. So, as you can see, it’s a very symbiotic relationship.
The philosophy extends from feeling emotions to keeping emotions repressed: not expressing your fear, anger, etc. in a healthy way. Bottling up these feelings lead to a considerable energetic imbalance. Releasing emotions that are causing blocks or stagnation in energy is considered a very powerful healing modality for the organs in TCM.
In Ayurvedic traditions, a holistic approach is also taken toward the maintenance of a state of balance between the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Aging and disease are said to be influenced by factors affecting Shareera (physical), Indriya (emotional), Satwa (psychic level), Agni (metabolism) and Bala/Ojas (immunity). Prana, or life force, controls the breath, thought processes, and sensory experiences. (2) Rather than looking at any symptom in isolation or as separate from who we are, full body balance is the goal through intervention therapies that connect us more deeply to our purpose, such as psychological, diet, and lifestyle changes.
Thoughts and emotions play an integral role in Ayurveda, supporting the wellness of the whole person. Similar to TCM, there is a system of connection between emotions and certain areas of the body, known as the Chakra system (learn extensively about this on my website here!). As an example, the 5th Chakra is located over the throat and rules communication and the ability to express emotions – so symptoms of neck pain, laryngitis, or thyroid issues would be looked at in conjunction with addressing the emotional aspects of this Chakra area to achieve balance.
In both traditions, it’s considered integral to pursue balance by nurturing healthy thought patterns, paying attention to and acknowledging feelings rather than trying to run away from them, and practicing going within to explore where thoughts and emotions can be shifted to create harmony in all areas of the body.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself, to see if the principles from these time-tested traditional approaches could help you feel better:
There is an abundance of exciting research being done that applies to this mind-body connection. Scientists and health and wellness experts have created many constructs to explain the relationship over the years. Our technological ability to analyze electrical activity in the brain is finally catching up to our ability to theorize, so more solid evidence can be released on the topic.
New advances have shown cognitive coping strategies have a mediating effect on pain and depression. (3) Psychological research demonstrates that pain severity is linked with emotional stress, emotional awareness, expression, and processing. Emotional communication and attachment are proving to be important factors in pain perception. (4)
Neuroplasticity is a growing field of study that reveals how experiences shape our brains. Throughout our lives, neural circuits are created and reshaped in ways that will promote survival. It all comes back to connection. Many study outcomes show that steering our thoughts and feelings toward compassion can influence our perception of pain, as outlined in this quote from a 2016 research review article by the International Association for the Study of Pain:
“Self-compassion is associated with significant benefits for emotional wellbeing, positive psychological functioning, and lower levels of psychological distress, depression, and anxiety in both general and clinical populations… The available evidence indicates that the development of a style of responding to one’s pain, difficulty, and failures, which is kind, emphasizes common humanity, and is independent of the need for value-based attribution of worth, would be of benefit in working with chronic pain.” (5)
Dr. Eric Braverman, author of “Younger Brain, Sharper Mind,” states that: “the brain is plastic, it is just as alive as any other organ in the body, and it can repair itself and adapt to change… It creates new neuron to neuron connections every time we learn new information or master a new concept.” Conversely, severe emotional distress and hopelessness can actually trigger cell death pathways in the brain while worry and anxiety are linked to shortened attention spans. (6)
The power of our beliefs and feelings on our core biology is becoming too prominent to ignore. Bruce Lipton, PhD, has done considerable research on the way emotions regulate our genetic expressions, surrounding the molecular pathway to understanding why childhood experiences continue to affect the adult brain. His findings suggest that we can essentially “re-wire” our brain to release old patterns and trauma and thrive in a new way. (7) This is doubly important, because increasing evidence shows that brain alterations from trauma can be passed on generationally. (8)
The most important aspect of these developments in research, is the ability to refine ways of treating and coping with emotional and physical disconnects. These advances show that we can create new healthy brain cells, and our brains can become more resilient to slip ups in our wellness regimen (diet, exercise, stress management). With a healthier mindset and a positive shift in patterns of thought, we can experience improved memory, ability to learn, enhanced cognition, and more disciplined focus. We can get smarter and more resilient as we age! (6)
Your own intentional efforts can influence how you experience the world and create resiliency a great deal. Please repeat these affirmations each day, visualizing your body being illuminated in sparkling white light, as you begin your journey to heightened awareness of your emotional and thought patterns. In your visualization, don’t just aim to “see” – you want to feel and bring all your senses into the experience to combine feeling with thought and encourage that coveted internal balance. Let it wash over your body as you affirm these truths:
I can help you establish this energetic shift to wellness. Schedule your next session with me via Skype or in person. Together, we can develop a plan that is personalized to your individual needs.
1. Five Major Organs. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2018, from Traditional Chinese Medicine World Organization:https://www.tcmworld.org/what-is-tcm/the-five-major-organ-systems/
2. Rao, R. V. (2017). Ayurveda and the science of aging. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine. doi:10.1016/j.jaim.2017.10.002
3. Hülsebusch, J., A. Rusu, and M. Hasenbring. “T405 Depression In Acute And Subacute Back Pain: Is The Relationship Between Pain And Depression Mediated By Cognitive Pain Coping Strategies?” European Journal of Pain Supplements 5, no. 1 (2011): 66. doi:10.1016/s1754-3207(11)70223-1.
4. Lumley, M. A., Cohen, J. L., Borszcz, G. S., Cano, A., Radcliffe, A. M., Porter, L. S., . . . Keefe, F. J. (2011). Pain and emotion: A biopsychosocial review of recent research. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67(9), 942-968. doi:10.1002/jclp.20816
5. Purdie, Fiona, and Stephen Morley. “Compassion and Chronic Pain.” Pain 157, no. 12 (2016): 2625-627. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000638.
6. Braverman, Eric R. Younger Brain, Sharper Mind: Six Steps to a Younger Smarter You from Americas Brain Health Doctor. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2011.
7. Bruce Lipton, PhD. “Epigenetics.” Accessed April 24, 2018. https://www.brucelipton.com/resource/article/epigenetics.
8. Lombard, Jay. Mind of God: Neuroscience, Faith, and a Search for the Soul. S.l.: HARMONY CROWN, 2018.