A Reflection on the Association between the Mind and the Body

| May 27, 2012

Mind and body are so intertwined that, in written texts, they frequently appear as “mind-body” instead of “mind and body”. Sometimes the mind is referred to as the software and the brain is considered as the hardware.  This points to the physical structure of the brain consisting of gray and white matters that  enable us to understand our surrounding world and  experiences by such processes as thinking, feeling, perceiving, reasoning and storing information, collectively called the mind.  There are multiple pathways that bridge the mind and the body such as the neuro-endocrine and immune systems.

The autonomic nervous system comprising the sympathetic and the parasympathetic components, is one of the two chief ingredients of the nervous system accounting for the mind-body connection (the other element is the somatic nervous system). For example, when we encounter a frightening stimulus, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in . The blood pressure goes up; the heart pumps faster and more forcefully, our pupils dilate, the blood redirects from the gastrointestinal system to the heart and brain, and the airways expand. These adaptive mechanisms help us to either fight or escape the situation, a phenomenon commonly referred to as the “fight or flight reaction”.

To portray the role of the endocrine system in mind-body connection, let’s look at the physiological response under stressful conditions. When an individual is stressed out (mental product), the hypothalamus receives a stimulus to produce corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) that stimulates the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone( ACTH). ACTH in turn, influences the adrenal cortex to produce corticosteroids (cortisol). Cortisol has myriad effects on the body including lowering immunity, augmenting blood pressure, promoting insulin resistance and altering the metabolic processes.

In addition to the above connections between them, mind and body demonstrate similar patterns of actions. As such, upon exposure to certain disrupting influences, both mind and body mobilize specific adaptive mechanisms to retrieve the original balanced state. For example, if the blood pressure declines as a result of blood loss, diarrhea, vomiting, excessive urination, severe pain or other conditions, our body responds to it via certain physiological mechanisms that heighten the blood pressure. These mechanisms include, but are not limited to, activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the juxta- glomerular apparatus in the kidney. The latter produces renin that is converted to angiotensin I by the enzyme angiotesinogen; and angiotensin, in turn, is converted into angiotensin II by the angiotensin converting enzyme in the lungs. Angiotensin II constricts the blood vessels and stimulates the secretion of aldosterone in the adrenal glands . Aldosterone then increases the reabosorption of sodium through the distal tubules of the nephrons. Taken together, the net result would be an increase in the blood pressure to restore the individual to normal situation. Another example could be mobilization of the white blood cells to fight against invading microorganisms. A low immune function might engender the individual to the adverse effects of the extrinsic organism.

Our mind works, more or less, in a similar way. Given that transitions are inevitable in our life and the only constant phenomenon appears to be change, it is not surprising the the balanced state of the mind often gets disturbed. In response, the mind mobilizes certain adaptive and protective mechanisms to retrieve the state of equilibrium. If these strategies are healthy, the individual retrieves the homeostatic psychological state, whereas unhealthy coping styles lead to psychopathologies. For example, problem-solving, cognitive reappraisals and realistic approaches help restore back to the normal state, while seeking comfort though alcohol and substance use further aggravate the disequilibrium in the long term.

Finally, if we look at the definition of health by the World Health Organization (WHO) “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”, we can see that health cannot be achieved without the well-being of both body and mind. This further indicates that the body and mind are two inseparable elements of human being and processes in one tremendously affect the other.

World Health Organization (1946)