More on the Body-Brain Connection, and How to Improve It

We can use information about the body to improve our relationship with it. In daily life we experience alternations between enthusiasm and discouragement, happiness and sorrow, vigor and exhaustion, etc. Scientists have learned a great deal about how measurable somatic changes accompany these mental cycles.

We’ve seen how the vagus nerve carries information from body to brain and back. Of course, there are other channels connecting the two, including chemical signals that flow in the blood stream. For instance, so-called stress hormones—such as cortisol and epinephrine—increase heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension; they leave us feeling irritable. From a MindfulBiology perspective, they heighten our tendency to detach from our bodies through substance abuse, overeating, overwork, excessive screen time, and other distractions. On the other hand, hormones such as oxytocin and prolactin play roles in emotional attachment and nurturing behaviors. It’s easy to imagine them promoting better mind-body interactions; warm, caring feelings help us feel more at home both somatically and psychologically.

In other words, stress moves us away from body appreciation and love moves us toward it. We can use this understanding to guide our personal practices.

  • Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress hormones. It’s helpful to sit in meditation, but it isn’t essential. It can feel profoundly settling to slow down and take interest during simple tasks like dishwashing; rather than worrying and planning while mindlessly scrubbing the dishes, savor the sensation of warm, soapy water. Notice how the hands feel pleasure in the task. Much of every day is spent on chores; use them to slow your pace, ease tension, and connect with your body. Simultaneously reducing your rate of breathing further relieves stress and promotes embodiment.
  • Compassion practices increase feelings of calm affection, possibly by altering hormone profiles. A common Buddhist form works like this: close your eyes and wish for the wellbeing and happiness of loved ones, then people you know less well, then yourself. When you’re ready, extend the same wish toward those with whom you feel conflict. After you get the hang of the practice, offer compassion to your sweet, pulsing body, which works so hard to move you through life.
  • Exercise relieves stress and promotes feel-good brain chemicals, like endorphins. The biggest boost comes from workouts that elevate heart rate, but any physical activity can help. The body feels more vigor during and after exertion, provided it’s not too intense. Learning how to stretch one’s limits without pushing too far is a good way to grow more familiar with your human organism.
  • Spending time outdoors also reduces tension and increases wellbeing, probably—in part—by altering hormone profiles. Warm rays of sun and cool drops of rain feel restorative. We evolved in natural landscapes and our bodies respond positively to them.
  • Eating foods that nourish but don’t agitate is also helpful. Whole grains, fresh vegetables, and lots of clear water support the body without causing spikes in blood sugar or cholesterol.

These practices are nothing new; most of us know their value. But if you have been procrastinating, remember how hard your body works on your behalf, how much it does for you. Healthful activities nurture this being that gives you life. Think of ways you push past resistance to care for people or animals who depend on you. Remember that your body depends on you even more. When you feel too tired to exercise, or too stressed to imagine eating broccoli instead of french fries, mentally separate your exhausted ego from your needful body. Encourage the former to support the latter, despite cravings and inconvenience. Even a small step, like eating a single broccoli flower, can feel surprisingly healing.

It’s useful to remember that our brains live immersed in a fluid environment, and that chemicals floating in that bath alter our experience. The next time you’re sitting quietly, perhaps while meditating, see if your degree of agitation versus calm seems to fluctuate for no reason; it’s likely you’re experiencing shifts in the composition your brain’s bathwater.

The practices suggested above improve that water’s quality. By settling mindfully into our bodies, generating compassion, exercising, spending time in nature, and eating well, we feel better. These feelings correlate with chemical changes deep in our tissues. In other words, human life is an organic, flowing system that responds—chemically and experientially—to every circumstance. We can use this fact to enhance wellbeing.