The connection between mind and body has long been acknowledged, but the science behind it is just starting to catch up. There’s data to support the belief that mood is a major predictor of health and well-being and that you can learn to control your mood. You can practice techniques that ignite the mind-body connection, giving you the power to trigger positive physiological responses.
Any practice that contributes to your senses of compassion, connection, empathy, gratitude, happiness, mindfulness, optimism, resilience, and self-compassion fits into this category of life-enhancing strategies.
So, how does that actually work?
Your brain has a characteristic known as neuroplasticity. That’s how it adapts according to your lifestyle, physiology, and environment. You are literally forming and re-forming your brain based on the choices you make and the habits you build on a day-to-day basis.
How can we use neuroplasticity to improve our lives?
The number of resources and practices (and even versions of practices!) purported to increase wellness can be overwhelming. So, here I delve into the specifics and benefits of three mind-body practices scientifically proven to improve physical health and psychological well-being. For many more I recommend exploring Greater Good in Action.
1. Try mindfulness-based stress reduction.
In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn recruited chronically ill patients who hadn’t responded to traditional treatments for an eight-week stress-reduction pilot program. The concept of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is now widely accepted as a viable strategy for pain management and as a supportive therapy in healing. The University of Massachusetts Medical School’s MBSR course is a great resource.
2. Learn to savor the good moments.
There is "a growing body of research to support the positive effects of gratitude’s physical and psychosocial benefits." Fred Bryant, a social psychologist at Loyola University Chicago, is at the forefront of the exploration of “savoring.” Savoring is the concept that being mindfully engaged and aware of your feelings during positive events can increase happiness in both the short- and long-term. In Bryant’s words, “It is like swishing the experience around … in your mind.”
3. Start to encourage upward spirals of the heart.
Positive psychology has identified an “upward spiral of positive emotions and health.” Positive emotions engender health, and, in turn, health engenders positive emotions. Because these spirals are driven by social connections, Barbara Fredrickson has given them the term, "upward spirals of the heart."
Much of the research on positive psychology has zeroed in on the vagus nerve. The greater the difference between your heart rate at inhalation and at exhalation, the higher your vagal tone. Higher resting vagal tone “has been associated with self-reported ability to regulate emotion, lower frustration levels, and lower emotional arousal in response to daily stressors.”
Research by Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kok posits that “people who experience warmer, more upbeat emotions may have better physical health because they make more social connections." It’s also been demonstrated that we “can self-generate positive emotions in ways that make [us] physically healthier."
"The daily moments of connection that people feel with others emerge as the tiny engines that drive the upward spiral between positivity and health," Fredrickson explains.
When two people share a positive emotion in each other's company, a degree of biobehavioral synchrony occurs. This might present itself through facial mimicry, mirrored body postures and eye movements, etc. Even more remarkable are the biological manifestations — levels of certain biochemicals rise in unison; there's a similarity in neural firings. As Fredrickson says, "a single positive emotion can roll like a wave through two brains and bodies at once."
"Positivity resonance" refers to the "micro-moments of love that you can experience in the company of others, when a positive emotional experience unfolds between and among you at the same time." You can share them with anyone — your romantic partner, child, friend, or a total stranger.
One of the easiest ways to infuse your day with positive emotions is with a simple smile. If you are rewarded with a smile back (as you most likely will be), engage the person in conversation. Both of you will experience biobehavioral synchrony and begin upward spirals of the heart!
As mind-body specialist Dr. James Gordon states, "The brain and peripheral nervous system, the endocrine and immune systems, and indeed, all the organs of our body and all the emotional responses we have, share a common chemical language and are constantly communicating with one another."
Through these practices, we can harness this power of the mind-body connection to change our lives for the better. We can use our brains to simultaneously improve our emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical well-being.