Treating the mind to treat the body

Our bodies function as a whole organism, with no part unconnected to the other. This means that if you have mental or emotional obstacles to happiness and well-being, the rest of your body is dramatically affected.

How the big rat you live with, work with or sleep with makes you sick

One of the most well-known links between the brain and the body is the way the brain forces the body to respond to stress. You’ve probably heard of the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism, but let’s break that down a bit into something that makes more sense.

Let’s use the ridiculous scenario of an overgrown rat chasing you down a deserted street trying to attack you with a broom. Your adrenal glands squirt out adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream, which gives you extra leg power so you can run fast, lift heavy things and be superhuman for a brief time.

Adrenaline comes and goes quite quickly from your bloodstream, and it’s job is to cause blood to be taken from all the internal organs it doesn’t need (stomach, bowels, bladder, pancreas, kidneys, intestines), and pump it into your muscles where you do need it.

Your brain is taken over by the emergency response of adrenaline, causing you to act on pure ‘instinct’ and causing a plethora of physical changes to your body. Instinct is really just parts of your brain that you are not necessarily conscious of, meaning you will be on autopilot. This may mean you turn around and fight the rat, or run away (or freeze and get broomed to death).

Fight, or flight. What this means in biological terms is that you are in an altered state of being that favours your physicality over everything else, including thought, feeling, digestion, reproduction and immunity. It makes you super conscious of your physical body.

Let’s say you live with the rat and he comes home every night. Change ‘rat’ to a person or people in your life who constantly cause you stress, with fighting, arguing, violence, belittling, expectations, humiliation, or other stressful behaviour no matter how big or small. Change ‘rat’ to the job you hate, your sexist boss, the friends that don’t call, the lover you are missing. Ongoing stress causes your body to constantly pump out adrenaline, with cortisol used for longer-term stresses.

Adrenaline can be thought of as the quick emergency responder, but cortisol has a longer-lasting effect for stress that lasts a long time. This means that your body is being forced into shut-down mode for long periods of time, and if you are constantly stressed, you will soon find that your body starts to become dysregulated in other ways and you will develop ‘conditions’ and diseases and syndromes.

You will have sleep problems, anxiety, burnout, sugar cravings, fatigue, mania, infertility, menstrual problems, digestive problems… The list goes on and on. There are very specific mechanisms for these effects, that are directly related to adrenaline and cortisol. Those little molecules running around your body interact with every cell. This is how stress makes you sick.

This is one of the ways your brain affects your body and vice versa. Interestingly, this state of anxiety most of us live in constantly is directly mirrored by our obsession with our physical selves: body image, clothes, being fat or skinny, boob size, waist size. There is an argument that suggests perhaps some stress relief would promote creativity. Food for thought if you are stressed and feeling your creativity being stifled.

The way you think

Your thoughts cause you to feel a certain way which then causes you to act a certain way. Your behaviour is who you are, but at the root, your thoughts are who you are, so if you don’t like what’s happening, change your thoughts. It sounds really simple, but the habit of changing your thoughts can be hard if you’re not used to it.

There are infinite examples of ways you can change your thoughts to change yourself for the better. Don’t worry about letting your old familiar self go: those feelings of change being scary are simply the feeling of unfamiliarity, not wrongness.

This is what getting out of your comfort zone is all about: driving a different way to the shops, trying a new hairstyle, going to a MeetUp on a subject you are interested in but have never pursued.

Do things differently, and the way you want them to be. It takes practice, but taking control of your thoughts is one of the most powerful things you can do in life. It means everything you have ever wanted is within your control. Ever wondered what successful people are always doing? Taking control of their thoughts. Once you start, you can’t stop.

Dealing with deep-seated issues

We’re all mad. This is true. Whatever collection of events, people and places have formed who we are (how we think) today are going to affect our choices. If those events are negative, we need to figure out a pathway forward to reduce the thought patterns that keep behaviours, thoughts and feelings repeating on us like spicy food.

They often cause huge emotional reactions in us, which until we’re ready to face, we just ignore. As we grow older, they usually rise to the surface and become more obvious as the baggage they are.

Freeing yourself of these negative beliefs and patterns need not require ten thousand hours of therapy, though this is usually helpful for severe issues to get the conscious mind on board. Everyone is different, but the way we do this is the same.

Brain re-training is really effective for getting rid of self-limiting beliefs because it works on the unconscious, usually by tricking it into believing something else. You know the beliefs: I can’t do this because I’m too stupid/lazy/fat/ugly/’it’s not my thing’.

These are just thoughts, and although some of them are particularly deeply ingrained, you can retrain your thoughts, thereby modifying your feelings, and thereby modifying your behaviour, with a bit of help.

Sometimes stuff is really hard, so find the right help for you.

Therapies or activities that can help us feel better

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Jessica Lloyd - Vulvovaginal Specialist Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

Jessica is a degree-qualified naturopath (BHSc) specialising in vulvovaginal health and disease, based in Melbourne, Australia.

Jessica is the owner and lead naturopath of My Vagina, and is a member of the:

  • International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease (ISSVD)
  • International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health (ISSWSH)
  • National Vulvodynia Association (NVA) Australia
  • New Zealand Vulvovaginal Society (ANZVS)
  • Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS)