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Physical health and how it’s linked to mental wellbeing

Ever notice how going for a walk or run before work not only helps you feel good mentally, but makes you sharper and better able to work? It’s hardly a coincidence. So why is it that we often separate our physical health from our mental wellbeing? And how can mindfulness help?

For hundreds of years, the mind and body have largely been thought of as separate entities. There’s the concept of the “ghost in the machine” – that inside our bodies there is our mind, a mysterious, intangible and altogether separate entity. The idea informed much of how medicine, psychology and the modern workplace developed. Physical health is tangible: we may be able to see and touch a bump or a bruise, but seeing stress is much less obvious.

This distinction still exists today, and so NHS services are divided into physical health services, which receive the bulk of the funding pie, and mental health services, which are left with little more than the crumbs. If physical and mental health are indeed separate, why does going for a run lift our mood? Why has physical activity been shown to be at least as effective as medication in the treatment of depression? Why is it that when we cut chronic stress, our immune systems get a boost, making us less susceptible to infections?

Fight Infection and Increase Dopamine 

Infection and Increase Dopamine

There’s nothing mysterious here: physical activity boosts the dopamine hormone in the brain, which makes us feel good. It also reduces stress hormones, boosting the number of lymphocytes, helping the body fight off infection.

The longer I practise mindfulness, the clearer the links between physical health and mental wellbeing become to me. Another word for mindfulness is awareness. With regular mindfulness practice, we build up awareness of our body and our mind.

Body Scan for Awareness

The body scan is a mindfulness exercise often used in mindfulness practice. It involves focusing on the felt physical sensations from one end of the body to the other. People often find the exercise relaxing, physically and mentally, even though the object of the practice is not to feel relaxed. But by bringing awareness to different parts of the body, we often find that we are carrying physical tension. This is particularly so at the times we are struggling to concentrate in work.

With practice, stress, anxiety, and other mental states can be located as physical sensations in the body. For example, anxiety is often experienced as ‘butterflies in the stomach’, anger as tightness in the chest and belly. If you’re having a tough day in work and you feel like everyone and everything is getting on your nerves, try bringing awareness down into your body. You will probably find you are carrying tension somewhere: the shoulders, the jaw, the forehead, perhaps. Bringing awareness to the tension allows it to dissipate, in turn impacting on your mood.

Changing how we are

Our thoughts also give us clues about our mental state. Suppose you’re having distressing thoughts about an upcoming presentation. “What if I mess up? Nobody will listen!” With mindfulness, again we bring awareness down into the body. We might notice emotions manifesting as physical sensations. It’s these emotions that are feeding the thoughts and making them appear powerful. Once we recognise thoughts as just thoughts and emotions as just physical sensations, they lose their power. This allows us to refocus on what we are trying to achieve. Similarly, going for a run or a workout at the gym brings our focus away from thoughts in our head, and down into the physical sensations in the body.

So if you want to improve your physical health, try feeding your mind some with chunks of stillness by taking up regular mindfulness practice. If you want to improve your mental health, nourish your body. You might find that distinction between physical and mental wellbeing is just an illusion, a bit like that ghost in the machine.

See if you can introduce mindfulness into your workplace. You might just create a team that is not just physically and mentally healthier, but gets the job done that bit better too.