The Mind-Body Connection of Stress

By Kathryn O’Connell, LCSW

Often our minds and bodies can seem disconnected, as if they were detached and serving different functions; however, research has shown the contrary, that their relationship is essential to our well-being. On a basic level, our bodies and minds are designed to keep us safe and secure. In an effort to help manage acute stress, our bodies increase stress response hormones, which may prepare us for difficult and/or unpleasant future events. Regrettably, for some individuals, it's possible that stress may persist on a weekly, daily, or even hourly basis. If stress becomes chronic and unmanageable, issues in the body and mind often arise. Stress can affect individual systems in our bodies, such as, nervous, musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, and reproductive. It has been shown that stress can exacerbate the impact on an individual system, which can lead to a cascading effect on multiple systems. What we often neglect, is our capacity to manage these systems to ensure our well-being. 

Examples of chronic stress may include coping with traumas, negative thoughts, low self-esteem, poor overall self-care, etc. Chronic stress can translate into physical pain, and often does. One common way stress physically presents itself is through various forms of stomach pains. Not widely know is that approximately 90% of the bodies serotonin is found in the gut; serotonin is important for regulating mood, sleep, and appetite. The term “gut feeling” isn’t made up after all!

There is a link between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system of the body called the gut-brain axis. This link is a clear example that brains are not the only organs affected by stress. The gut-brain axis is bi-directional. Psychological and physical stressors that have an effect on the central nervous system can disrupt the gut. Consequently, this disruption can lead to ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), among other diseases. Even mild stress on the brain can cause imbalances in the gut and can result in various gut illnesses. In the reverse direction, research suggests that altering the balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in an animal’s gut can cause it’s brain chemistry to change. This chemical change is shown to cause the animal to become either bolder or more fearful. This shows us that while our mind can influence our gut in negative ways, our gut has the power to also affect our brains in negative ways! This can be a very difficult cycle to break.

With the right coping strategies, stress can be managed and physical issues may subside. Sometimes even recognizing what stress is doing to our bodies as a whole can motivate you to manage it more effectively. For instance, the next time the train is packed and you’re running late for a meeting, think to yourself “is stressing out worth the stomachache I will get from it?” Sometimes stress is out of our control. By developing daily routines and practices you can help build the tools you need to manage stress on an ongoing basis. Creating a nighttime routine is one way to get better sleep and in turn, help combat stress more effectively. Starting a meditation or yoga practice is another way to develop your tools to manage stress. Work with your therapist to develop what works for you!

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Kathryn O’Connell is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you are looking for support in finding solutions to enhance your overall wellness, contact Cobb Psychotherapy by calling 718-260-6042 or emailing reception@cobbpsychotherapy.com, and see how therapy can help.

Elizabeth Cobb