The coronavirus pandemic is causing us to think about our immune systems, but few consider the deep mind-body connection
Poor mental health and stress negatively affect the immune system, while meditation and mindfulness can strengthen it
The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the importance of having a strong immune system. For many of us, building up the body’s defence against disease-causing bacteria and viruses means eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, exercising well and not smoking. But there’s another critical factor – mental health.
The mind-body connection is well established. Research over the past 20 years has shown how stress negatively affects the functioning of white blood cells. What’s more, vaccination is less effective and wounds heal less readily in those who are stressed.
The mind-body connection means that thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes can positively or negatively affect our biological functioning. Simply put, our mind can affect our body.
“Our thoughts are linked to how we feel emotionally and physically. If we have anxious or catastrophic thoughts, we may have sleeping difficulties or a lack of energy. The mind and body are well linked,” says Reidy.
A recognition of the mind-body connection is nothing new – traditional medicine systems around the world have always treated the two as a whole.
The shift came about in the 17th century led by mathematician and philosopher René Descartes. He is best known for saying, ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think therefore I am’, or, more accurately, ‘I think therefore I exist’) – and with those words helped establish the split between the mind and the body.
The tide began turning at the end of last century. Psychiatrist Dr James Lake, who was previously at Stanford University, is a pioneer in the field of integrative mental health and has written extensively on the medical and mental benefits of meditation, mindfulness training, yoga, and other mind-body practices.
Closer to home, Professor Cecilia Chan Lai-wan, Si Yuan Chair Professor in Health and Social Work at the University of Hong Kong, has done much work in this field.
Chan says: “We conducted a study of people with chronic insomnia. We drew their blood and then asked them about their childhood trauma. We found that people who reported childhood sexual abuse had long-term inflammation. Trauma has long-term effects; the body remembers.”
She conducted a clinical trial with her colleagues at HKU and found that about one-third of those in the insomnia study reported that when they started suffering from sleeping difficulties, they were having relationship problems or were in bereavement; one third reported work or family stress.
“Those with relationship problems found the mind is affecting the body in terms of quality of sleep. With poor sleep the person’s mood becomes worse and the body deteriorates,” says Chan.
She has created her own integrative approach, Body-Mind-Spirit Intervention, and is co-author of Integrative Body-Mind-Spirit Social Work (2009).
“This approach puts an emphasis on harmony and balance of the five elements in the body – metal, earth, water, air and wood. It also represents different types of internal organs, mood states and virtues, so we can enhance our resilience,” says Chan.
Her integrative approach offers easy-to-learn self-help techniques, including simple qigong exercises and how to identify acupressure points. There are examples – including video demonstrations available free of charge.
The mind-body connection works both ways. Not only do our thoughts and beliefs impact our bodies, but what we do with our bodies – what we eat, our posture, how much we exercise – can impact our mental state.
Alison Tait, a fitness professional who teaches at Barre 2 Barre in Central, Hong Kong, sees a clear two-way link between mind and body. She begins her classes, whether it’s a mixed barre class or a high-intensity class, with stillness, to give clients a few moments to go within and set an intention for what they hope to achieve in the session.
“I want clients to get a sense of [the class] being a reward and feeling refreshed and renewed rather than a punishment,” says Tait.
On days when she is overloaded and her brain feels “fuzzy”, she now knows that exercise is a great remedy.
“If I’m having an off day, I respond well to putting myself through intense challenges. It can help resettle the energies in my body,” says Tait.
Body work need not mean high-intensity workouts. She encourages people to be a little playful and experiment, explaining that gentle breath work can also positively impact the mind.
“We all know people living with depression or anxiety – we see that with friends and family, especially with the year we are having. The more I can support someone to move, the more I feel there is a chance they will feel differently about their day,” says Tait.