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Why self care and better health is always in three dimensions, not just a mind-body connection

Research published on November 5th shows that Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) has a shared genetic pathway with mood and anxiety disorders. It’s yet another insight into how health isn’t either mental or physical. It defies the notion that whatever your symptoms are, they’re not ‘all in your head’ or ‘just physical’.

Here at The Helpful Clinic we always work in all three dimensions of health, the physical, mental and social. But why do we place such emphasis on this? 

Most of us struggle to practice good self care and help ourselves feel better.  It could be about more helpful habits, managing stress or addressing symptoms like pain, fatigue or anxiety. Whatever it is, you’re not alone.  The most likely reason you’re struggling? You’re only addressing one or at most two of the three dimensions of self care and better health.  It’s a bit like having one or two legs on a stool and expecting it to be stable. 

Mind-body connection

You may have heard of the mind-body connection which refers to how the mind and body affect each other. It often focuses on how your mind, that is your mindset and thoughts affect your body.  

Athletes like Tom Daley are increasingly training their mental abilities to support their physical ones. This includes using skills like visualisation.  Recently published findings of the parents’ mindset for post-operative recovery in children show that their mindset can affect the amount of pain medication the child needs. Closer to home, just watching a scary movie, you can feel the terror in your own body. What goes on in the mind clearly affects what goes on in the body.

The mind-body problem

The focus is often on the impact of the mind on the body but this is an interactive relationship. Noticed that when sleep deprived your confidence drops? You may think of depression for example as ‘simply’ a mental illness, think again.  Research is now showing that physical factors are linked to depression and other mental health conditions

There’s a growing consensus that you can not think of the mind and the body as separate and independent of each other. Over the last few decades, research in Western medicine is consistently proving this to be true. This is supported by research and application of the age-old Chinese model of medicine used in acupuncture and emotional freedom technique EFT.

So, why does Western medicine separate mind and body?

The model of health that splits health into two different aspects, mental and physical is called the biomedical model. It is often traced back to Descartes’ famous philosophical statement “cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”).  He argued that the body and mind of a human are separate and distinct from one another.

What is biopsychosocial model

Just over 300 years later, in 1977, Engel ‘…argued that psychological and social factors influence biological functioning and play a role in health and illness.  He proposed a new model that included biology, psychology and sociology (or social context), the BioPsychoSocial model.  

This more inclusive and integrated approach to health is gradually gaining recognition with an ever-strengthening evidence base. However, there is still resistance within mainstream Western medicine. Health care systems like the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK are designed in line with the biomedical model.

What the biopsychosocial model brings to the mind-body connection and the biomedical model 

Crucially the social context is often missed in research, health care as well as in our own attempts to help ourselves.  We don’t often think of factors like where we were born, education, race, gender etc affecting how we feel and our ability to practice good self care and help ourselves feel better. 

The disproportionate impact of Covid on people of colour is a striking point in case. Research shows that stress decreases the effectiveness of vaccinations and and an example provided is the chronic stress of poverty and its detrimental impact on the immune system. This is referred to as health equality.

“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman.”– Dr. Martin Luther King.

On a personal level, our health literacy and health-related beliefs play a part. This means having ‘…enough knowledge, understanding, skills and confidence to use health information, to be active partners in [your] care, and to navigate health and social care systems’. Why is this so vital? Research suggests that health literacy and beliefs directly affect your ability to practice self care and help yourself feel better.  

A male struggling with insomnia

How does this all relate to self care and better health? 

Joe was struggling with recurring headaches. He relied on coffee and painkillers to help him push through and recently he’s also been experiencing stomach cramps. He’d been thinking there wasn’t anything he could do. Then a friend suggested he get in touch and see if we could help. We discussed how feelings (physical sensations and emotions) are always information. Our starting point was to create a map of his experience. Here are the main clues we found. 

He realised that he was more likely to get headaches when he was feeling more critical of himself.  And this was getting worse. He noticed that he was less resilient to stress when he was more critical of himself. When he was more stressed he skipped meals and didn’t drink enough water. Lack of food and water contributed to more headaches and they were more intense.   He didn’t know that ibuprofen can have a detrimental impact on your stomach.  

He realised that sleep played a part and that for a while now he hadn’t been sleeping well. At first, he attributed that to stress but actually, looking deeper something else was going on. His sleep was being affected by the fact that his wife was experiencing hot flushes at night due to menopause. Her behaviour, of moving the duvet and opening the window to cool down, was disruptive. 

So what did Joe do with this information and insights?

He talked with his wife and they decided to get two single duvets. They also committed to look at how to best support her with these challenging experiences.  He stopped taking the ibuprofen as that wasn’t actually alleviating the pain anyway.  Joe knew he’d struggle to recognise when he was not drinking enough water so he buddied up with a colleague. They checked in with each other about how much water they drank each day and helped each other not skip lunch. Within a few weeks, both the intensity and the frequency of Joe’s headaches had reduced significantly. Finally, he decided to learn more about self talk and how we all have an inner critic and an inner coach.

As you can see from Joe’s story the issue of headaches and stomach pain was affected by what was happening in all three dimensions, physical, mental and social.  He was also affected because he was taking medication that he didn’t know enough about, i.e. health literacy and he hadn’t realised how unhelpful his self talk was. 

"It's more helpful to be curious than critical" Thor A Rain

Our invitation to you

Whatever it is that you’re struggling with, our invitation to you is to get curious and look at this experience in all three dimensions. What are you thinking, feeling and doing in terms of this experience? What’s happening mentally, physically and what’s the social context? 

Create a map of what comes to mind as contributing or limiting factors in each of the three dimensions. As you do that you are strengthening your awareness of what’s going on.  Looking deeply means that you discover helpful clues.  These show you where you can take action.  It also gives you the opportunity to listen mindfully to the various aspects of your experience, for example conflicting thoughts about what choices to make. We refer to this as sherlocking.  Like Sherlock Holmes, you’re searching the clues for what’s going to help you understand what’s going on for you. This is the A in the ABC technique (Awareness – Breath & body – Choice).

Take the time to breathe and shuffle your body. This helps you to think more clearly.  When you can think more clearly you can make more helpful choices in terms of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Choices that support good self care and so better health.   

 Remember that it’s more helpful to be curious than critical and go gently with yourself. 

Want to geek out? 

If you’re interested in reading more about how the mind and body interact within a social context, check out Candace B Pert PhD.  She placed mind-body medicine on the map with her landmark book Molecules of emotion published in 1997. In this book, she brings together the case for the triad of Psychology, Neurology and Immunology, what’s been named PsychoNeuroImmunology.  Other key phrases to search for are ‘neural pathways’ or ‘neuroplasticity’ referring to your brain’s ability to change and grow and finally ‘functional and/or lifestyle medicine’.

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Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor

Thor sitting writing in his chair and Denny the dog sitting next to him and looking outside the window