5 MIN READ
Philosophers and psychologists have fought over it for centuries. The mind-body problem is an age-old troupe. For hundreds of years, dualistic thinking in Western medicine has viewed the mind and the body as two discrete entities. However, in more recent years, research across disciplines is beginning to show that the mind and the body are in fact, inextricably connected.
From the relationship between self-esteem and exercise, gut bacteria and anxiety, depression and dancing, there is plenty of data to show the benefits of nurturing body and mind in tandem. That is why at Paradym we wholeheartedly believe in a holistic approach: a healthy body can lead to a healthy mind and a healthy mind can lead to a healthy body.
Unfortunately, however, in the west we are currently experiencing a crisis of bodies. Worldwide Obesity rates have nearly tripled since 1975 and statistics show a record high for other eating disorders, varying body dysmorphias and other body-related anxieties. One in five adults surveyed last year felt shame about their bodies and 57 per cent of 18-24 year olds feel anxious because of their body image. What is more, our increasingly sedentary lifestyles means that more than one quarter of a billion people worldwide are not doing enough exercise.
While of course the causes for these issues are multifaceted – increased consumption of processed foods, increased desk jobs, unrealistic advertising standards and increased use of social media – the long held mind-body dualism has a lot to answer for. “Arguably, viewing our bodies as separate to our minds, promotes objectification and self-surveillance, that is, viewing one’s body from an outsider observer’s perspective.” explains Body Image Research & Academic Nadia Craddock. “In doing so, rather than feeling connected with our body, we try to control (and even punish) our bodies for not conforming with societal standards of beauty.”
This mentality is particularly evident in media and social media whereby platforms like Instagram encourage us to exercise this mind-body disconnection. We see many images of bodies but more often than not they are devoid of movement, sound, language, verbal communication, emotion or expression. Craddock explains that in line with Objectification Theory, the act of viewing one’s body as an ‘object, there is a habitual process of monitoring and scrutinizing one’s body through a ‘male gaze’ or otherwise ‘external gaze’. This practice predicts negative body image, specifically, feelings of body shame, low mood and disordered eating (in line with many of the body issues noted above).
While it must not go unnoticed that there is a lot of work needed at a societal level to help improve our cultural attitudes to bodies, there are a number of things we, as individuals, can do to improve our mind-body relationship.
The first, is to start thinking about the mind and body from a holistic perspective, as we do at Paradym. “Body image is often defined as a multidimensional construct encompassing how we think and feel about how our body looks and functions.” The concept of embodiment can help us to make sense of this kind of mind-body relationship. Embodiment is the connection you have with your body – how you think about your body but also how you feel within it. Aligning thinking and feeling is so crucial because as evidence shows, the mind and body are deeply connected entities.
As such, Craddock explains that body image is not only about self-perfection and self-evaluation of our bodies but also emotion and affect. Importantly, how we think and feel about our bodies influences how we behave towards our bodies (i.e., how we treat and care for our bodies) as well as how connected or attuned we feel with our bodies.” As such, how we treat and relate to our physical bodies has a profound impact on how we think and feel.
Just think back to a hectic time in your life where you lost a sense of balance over your wellbeing and are not giving your body what it needs. Can you remember not only how that felt but also how it made you think about or perceive your body? Craddock continues, “Restricting our diet or eating erratically, not getting enough sleep, drinking heavily etc. will likely affect our ability to concentrate and focus, and will also likely impact our mood.”
Although Craddock cautions the importance of not overstating the benefits of lifestyle-orientated behaviour changes on mental well-being, “#wellness is not a cure-all for mental illness” – I’m sure we are all too familiar with the Goop-ification of the wellness industry – there are a growing number of studies that show embodying activities such as yoga, meditation, dance, life drawing and spending time in nature which can have positive benefits on body image.
Secondly, moving the body does wonders for our mental wellbeing. Exercise has a number of positive effects on our minds and bodies, including our hearts, immune system, bones and brain. In particular, research shows that regular fitness regimes can have a particularly positive effect on our emotional behaviour and can help us manage stress. This is because when we exercise, trophic factors are elevated, which help us improve our mood.
Finally, thinking about what we eat can also have a profound impact on our mental wellbeing. While it is important to caution here that it’s important not to be too restrictive and have too many ‘rules’ around food, there are a number of studies which show the benefits of gut health. Often referred to as our second brain, the gut is the second controlling system of our bodies. When the gut is out of whack, accumulating research shows that our bodies can suffer from anxiety, depression, autism, and even obesity, diabetes, or autoimmune disorders.
Let’s explore your mind-body connection with some experimentation. Write your answers down.
1. Sit still with your body, close your eyes and connect with it. What do you feel? A niggle in your back? Stiffness in your joints? Or maybe your whole body feels harmonious after a good stretch.
2. Now do the same with your mind. Sit still with your mind, your thoughts. What do you feel? Content, happy, sad, tired, stressed, anxious?
3. What do you notice in how you feel in your body and how you feel in your mind?
This is a great exercise to repeat before/after any kind of movement, meditation, or breathing to notice the impact in yourself.