At least as far back as Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalysis movement, psychologists have argued that a body-mind concept is crucial to psychology. Much of the reasoning for this stems from the idea that physical conditions can affect mental health and that mental conditions can affect physical health.
Unlike desires or dreams, our thoughts and emotions don’t live entirely in the mind. Feelings are, well, actual, physical feelings; people get ‘butterflies in the stomach’ onstage, while others who anger easily are described as ‘hot-headed’, and depression actually acts like physical pain on a neurochemical level.
The body holds your physical health and technical ability to function, for example walking and the fine movements of your fingers. Yet, the mind houses your spirit and your motivation to function. These days, we have evidence that mental and physical health are related to each other, so mind-body integration in psychology seems to be becoming particularly important (Taylor et al., 2010).
This article contains:
- Defining Body-Mind Integration
- Mapping Our Emotions: Researching The Physical Presence of Emotions
- How Can We Explain This Mind-Body Integration?
- The In’s and Out’s of Body Intelligence
- Body-Mind Integration Techniques
- Positive Psychology and Body-Mind Integration
- Going Forward
- Take Home Message
Defining Body-Mind Integration
Selhub (2007) stated,
“In mind-body medicine, the mind and body are not seen as separately functioning entities, but as one functioning unit. The mind and emotions are viewed as influencing the body, as the body, in turn, influences the mind and emotions” (p. 4).
There are different approaches to our understanding of mind-body integration. Some researchers indicate that body-mind integration is crucial in the medical field, claiming that since patients don’t feel an obvious division between their bodies and their minds, physicians shouldn’t jump to diagnoses that clearly separate them (Davidsen et al., 2016).
A medical approach to mind-body integration, therefore, seems to be most concerned with treating patients holistically to avoid simply treating symptoms and ignoring their holistic causes.
Aside from the strictly medical approaches, there are also more neurologically-based models of mind-body integration. For example, Taylor et al. (2010) discuss a number of psychophysiological-based models where certain neurons and muscles affect mental states such as stress.
Despite differences, the models of varied fields all indicate a bidirectional effect that is driven by both top-down and bottom-up factors. In this case, top-down mechanisms are defined as those which initiate in mental processes in the cerebral cortex, and bottom-up mechanisms are those which begin with sensory receptors. Let’s see an example in practice.
Mapping Our Emotions: Researching The Physical Presence of Emotions
One 2013 study focused on where people experience different emotions in the body, this research constituted the first ‘map’ of the subjective links between our emotions and our body sensations.
In the study, a team of Finnish researchers induced different emotions in 701 participants and then asked them to color in a body map of where they felt increasing or decreasing activity (Nummenmaa et al., 2013).
Participants in the study were from both Western European countries (Finland and Sweden) and well as East Asian countries (Taiwan). Despite the cultural differences, the researchers found remarkable similarities in how participants responded.
The researchers explain their findings:
“Most basic emotions were associated with sensations of elevated activity in the upper chest area, likely corresponding to changes in breathing and heart rate. Similarly, sensations in the head area were shared across all emotions, reflecting probably both physiological changes in the facial area […] as well as the felt changes in the contents of mind triggered by the emotional events.”
The pictures below represent the body maps for the six basic emotions. Yellow indicates the highest level of activity, followed by red. Black is neutral, while blue and light blue indicate lowered and very low activity respectively.
Along with the basic emotions, here are the body maps of six more complex emotions.
Image credit: Giorgio Raffaelli & body maps courtesy of Aalto University
You can find the original blog post here.
The Physical Impact of Positive and Negative Emotions
Each emotion we experience has a different representation in the body. Below we unpack these main emotions and their physical responses:
Happiness is the one emotion that fills the whole body with activity. This might indicate a sense of physical readiness that comes with a happy state, a heightened communication between the body and the brain. Because we usually feel secure when we are happy, we can devote all of our attention and resources to experiencing ourselves as a part of the world around us.
This is another standout emotion that fills the body with activation, stopping just short of the legs. Love is often intertwined with physical desire, it also unsurprisingly activates sensation in the reproductive organs much more strongly than happiness does on its own.
The emotional focus of love is both the object of affection and the intensity of emotions in the subjective self, so activation is intense around the head and chest but more difficult to notice in the lower extremities.
This emotion focuses activity around the head and chest areas in a very intense but focused pattern. This pattern of activation most likely corresponds to a focus on the self, with resources and awareness drawn inwards away from the extremities.
Although surprise follows a similar pattern, the strength of the activation is much less pronounced, as resources draw inwards to prepare the body to face danger. Because surprise can be positive, negative, or neutral, the body feels it in a way that reflects uncertainty or insecurity.
Anger stands alone as the negative emotion with the most intense activation, particularly in the head, chest, and hands. The angry body prepares itself for conflict by focusing attention and resources on the parts of the body that might have to act.
Fear holds a similar but much more understated pattern of activation, as the body prepares to either fight or flee but isn’t necessarily seeking outright conflict.
Disgust pulls the resources of the body even more tightly into the core of the body. This emotion causes the body to prepare to expel any noxious substances it has ingested, hence the focus of activation along the digestive tract.
7) Shame and Contempt
Although shame and contempt have similar patterns of activation, contempt stimulates far less activation in the chest. This may be because the focus of contempt is outside of the self, while the focus of shame is the failings of the self.
The depression of activity in the extremities is also far more pronounced in shame. Perhaps this is because the body withdraws resources into itself in a fight-or-flight response.
Anxiety, which is a form of long-term, low-grade stress, activates the chest intensely. People who experience anxiety attacks frequently report tightness and pain in the chest. These feelings might correspond to the strain the heart and lungs feel as they struggle to deliver oxygen to the body under conditions of extended fear.
This has the most noticeable map of our negative emotions. It stimulates no activation in any part of the body and actually lowers activation in the extremities. In a state of depression, it is very difficult to connect with either the active self or the outside world. Sadness on its own depresses activation in the extremities but doesn’t entirely suppress feeling in the head and chest.
How Can We Explain This Mind-Body Integration?
“Emotions adjust not only our mental, but also our bodily states. This way they prepare us to react swiftly to the dangers, but also to the opportunities […] Awareness of the corresponding bodily changes may subsequently trigger the conscious emotional sensations, such as the feeling of happiness.” –Lauri Nummenmaa
Because emotions manifest in the body as physical sensations, it follows that physical sensations can produce corresponding emotions. Therefore it is likely that the warmth of being wrapped in a blanket on a cold day translates from a physical sensation to an emotional feeling of happiness and security.
The connection between our minds and our bodies is something we can instinctively feel, but how much attention do you pay to your bodily sensations from moment to moment?
To truly understand our own emotional lives and those of the people around us, we need a level of awareness. This awareness is achieved through the practice of mindfulness and the development of body intelligence.
Taking a moment to acknowledge and become mindful of how you physically feel in times of joy, sorrow, and calm can help to put you more in touch with each of those aspects of your being, giving you a better understanding of yourself as an integrated whole.
Body intelligence is a psychological method that stresses the importance of awareness of body sensations in order to improve your health by tuning into the internal cues that your body is telling you.
The In’s and Out’s of Body Intelligence
The body is the subject of constant stressors, both external and internal (Antonovsky, 1993) and as an integral part of the human machine it constantly communicates what it needs in order to cope – we just need to learn to listen.
Often, when we are confronted with difficult emotions we are inclined to cope in maladaptive ways for example through self-medicating to deal with undesirable feelings.
And while these maladaptive methods feel like they are working at the time, they tend to be detrimental to health and don’t facilitate the long-term improvements we desire but rather provide a veil of short-term, symptomatic relief.
The overall purpose of body intelligence in psychology is to strengthen the mind-body link as a means to implement cohesive, effective communication between the mind and the body which can foster positive well-being.
Choosing to engage in body intelligence is likely to invoke longer lasting improvements in health. Although body intelligence cannot remove illness, it can attune you to what your body is feeling, and help to reduce certain symptoms, such as increased heart rate.
What to know more about the details of body intelligence? Take a listen to this podcast from Live Happy which explains it’s details and benefits.
Duperly et al. (2008) undertook a study of the impact of a positive attitude for medical students and found that maintaining a positive attitude to their own health habits was crucial in their preventative counseling.
The students with a positive attitude were more positive about people receiving preventive counseling, and combating disorders before they took hold. This example of positive attitude and disease prevention is a key example of how your attitude can shape other aspects of your life, and positively impact your health.
Feeling skeptical? Here is a fascinating interview where infamous realist Richard Dawkins, questions alternative medicine guru Deepak Chopra on Body Intelligence, Quantum Healing and the impact of subjectivity on health:
So how do we begin to influence this often unconscious dynamic between our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations?
Below is a comprehensive list of techniques which help to build body intelligence, train our attention and increase body awareness for greater physical and mental health.
Body-Mind Integration Techniques
“The goal of mind-body techniques is to regulate the stress response system so that balance and equilibrium can be maintained and sustained, to restore prefrontal cortex activity, to decrease amygdala activity, and to restore the normal activity of the HPA axis and locus ceruleus-sympathetic nervous system” (Selhub, p. 5).
The body-mind integration field includes a number of disciplines and approaches. The medical field is a comprehensive example and includes a wide range of “alternative” techniques which aim to increase awareness and strengthen the mind-body link. Some examples of these modalities include(McGuire et al., 2016):
“Mindfulness is characterised by dispassionate, non-evaluative and sustained moment-to-moment awareness of perceptible mental states and processes. This includes continuous, immediate awareness of physical sensations, perceptions, affective states, thoughts, and imagery”-(Grossman, et al., 2003)
Mindfulness is an incredibly powerful tool in the treatment of mental health disorders, stress-related conditions, cancer, as well as cardiovascular conditions.
People who are prone to depression, anxiety and stress-related conditions engage in overthinking, rumination, and they often struggle to disconnect from their thoughts and worries. Mindfulness can play a vital role in the prevention of these mental health disorders by creating directed and focussed attention on the present experience.
Mindfulness can play a vital role in the prevention of these mental health disorders through training direct and focused attention on the present experience.
Fazekas, Leitner, and Pieringer (2010) cite the importance of accurate detection and appropriate interpretation of body sensations in order to practice effective self-regulation. According to them, internal cues are the most consciously available way to develop body intelligence.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is one example of mindfulness-based therapies. It is a structured course which offers its participants a new lease on life, health, and well-being.
This is possible as mindfulness redirects attention to both the external environment and internal experience from a detached and passive perspective, away from negative thought loops, pain or discomfort.
By focusing on internal sensations you learn to break out of past patterns of thought while slowing the heart rate and calming the breath.
This TEDtalk is a thorough introduction to mindfulness and explains how focusing on our toes can help reduce negative thoughts.
In traditional meditation, the main focal point for attention training is on the inhalation and exhalation of air through the nose. Due to this, much research into the breath has been done and it has found that by being attuned to your breathing, and paying attention to it, you can slow it down. As your breathing slows down, you naturally become more calm and relaxed, less anxious, depressed and angry.
This is one example of the plethora of meditation resources available out there. It is a traditional meditation practice which focuses on training the attention on the breath. While this may not seem simple it is only 3 minutes long and the benefits of meditation will already be present.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is just one example of relaxation therapy which is known to build body intelligence. PMR teaches us to systematically tense and then release muscles, working on one muscle group at a time. This process obviously results in reduced physical stress and tension and through training attention on focus on the body, there is a clear movement away from difficult or stressful emotions, resulting in a deep sense of relaxation and well-being.
There are many examples of relaxation techniques including the well known the Body Scan.
A pioneering technique for building body intelligence is biofeedback. Biofeedback is the use of scientific, physiological monitoring of the body to effectuate awareness of body states, with electrodes, such as EMG or Electromyography which in turn enables someone to make conscious changes to the state of their body (Ancoli, Peper, and Quinn).
The evidence supporting biofeedback has been strong and it has been found to reduce certain disorders such as high blood pressure and migraines. One of the most significant implications of biofeedback is the self-direction that it elicits; resulting in a heightened awareness of the body’s responses and the ability to change these accordingly.
If you are interested in learning more about biofeedback and how it can provide effective treatment over the use of meditation for different illnesses, then watch this full-length lecture from the University of California, San Fransisco, Osher Centre for Integrative Medicine:
Yoga, T’ai Chi, Qigong
These three physical practices focus on using body movements to focus attention on the internal experience of the present. The slow and steady pace of the movements aid in relaxation and reduce physical stress while they simultaneously create a focused state of mind which helps to overcome negative emotions. This report from Harvard Health is just one of many examples of the research which is taking place around the benefits of these body-mind-integration techniques.
Positive Psychology and Body-Mind Integration
In two recent studies, mind-body techniques were found to improve depression in children and adults. A study by Staples, Atti, and Gordon (2011) indicated that significant improvements in depressive symptoms and a lowered sense of hopelessness were established after 129 Palestinian children and adolescents participated in a 10-session mind-body skills group.
These skills included meditation, guided imagery, breathing techniques, autogenic training, biofeedback, genograms, and self-expression through drawings and movement. After 7 months, the improvements in depression were maintained, and even though hardships and conflicts were ongoing, the decrease in the sense of hopelessness was maintained.
There are also several positive psychology interventions which operate under the assumption of mind-body integration, as they assume that there is a bidirectional relationship between improved physical health and higher levels of mental well-being (Wong et al., 2015, Zeller et al., 2004). There are also plenty of positive psychology researchers which specifically focus on mind-body integration, rather than just indirectly endorsing the idea.
For example, Jindani & Khalsa (2015) investigated the effects of a yoga program on participants with post-traumatic stress disorder. The result was that participants found the yoga intervention to be “highly effective”.
PTSD itself can also be regarded as a mind-body disorder, as symptoms can manifest in both the physical and mental bodies. A mind-body treatment plan thus seems especially necessary with this condition.
A review of “alternative medicines” (such as yoga, hypnosis, and meditation, to name a few) found that they can also be helpful in managing stress and affecting other mental conditions (Park, 2015). Park claims that these findings show that body-mind treatments should be integrated into clinical psychology, taking into account the evidence that shows how mind-body treatments can be effective in treating mental disorders as well as improving mental health in general.
Regardless of the theories driving mind-body integration, it is clear that positive psychologists are on board with this holistic approach to well-being.
Positive psychology research that puts a greater emphasis on body-mind integration would involve even more discussion of physical conditions than positive psychology already employs.
For example, studies that measure well-being might start byexplicitly measuring physical well-being as well as mental well-being to try and paint a complete picture.
Positive psychology teachings could also seek to teach people the connections between their physical and mental experiences so that people have a more holistic understanding of self, and a greater sense of body intelligence when learning to deal with life’s challenges.
A Take Home Message
There are several different theories on mind-body integration as it relates to medical and psychological issues. Many of these theories indicate a bidirectional relationship driving this integration, indicating that mind and body are truly integrated rather than one side simply responding to the other.
The mind and the body are the greatest tools we possess to achieve positive well-being, so it is imperative that we learn body intelligence in the treatment and prevention of physical and mental illness.
There is a multitude of body-mind integration techniques that are being used to develop our body intelligence, train our attention and create a strong link between our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. These include such modalities as Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, meditation, mindfulness, biofeedback , nd yoga. And the results of sthe tudies are showing the powerful effect that these skills have on the people that practice them.
Several positive psychology interventions have included mind-body integration techniques and people who seek to improve their physical or mental health only stand to gain from an intregrated positive psychology that incorporates body-mind integration.
About The Authors
Kate is from England and is currently across the pond studying Psychology and Behavioural Science at McGill University, Canada. She has always held a deep interest in writing and psychology and plans to pursue these in her career. Positive psychology resonates with Kate due to her desire to see the light in everything.
Joaquín is a writer who was first introduced to positive psychology through behavioral neuroscience research. His research focused on addiction with the hopes of helping people change their habits. He believes that positive psychology can have a huge impact in this field as well as improve people’s lives in general. Joaquín was born in Nicaragua and now lives in the United States.
Lauren is an Assessment Clinician at a Substance Abuse Facility. With a background in psychology, Lauren is currently completing her Master’s in Social Work. In the future, she plans on making her contribution to the world through working with children within the field of medical social work
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