Movement and Mental Health - Understanding the Mind + Body Connection
May 03, 2021
In my last semester in college, taking a psychology internship, I thought to help people feel better, I had to work with their mind. Graduate school and our profession reinforce that belief as Cognitive Behavior Therapy is marketed as the Gold Standard in mental health therapy. So why, no matter how hard I tried to change my clients’ thoughts so they could feel better, was it not getting any better?
It wasn’t until I learned about trauma and adversity that we were more than our brain, we were our body too. What I didn’t realize until well into my counseling career was that no matter how hard I tried to change the mind, the body kept getting in the way.
Physical therapists and personal trainers have a different focus. Train the body. Build strength, flexibility and endurance. These professions are not trained to recognize and work with mental health. Training the body works great with those who are more typically organized neurologically and have good overall mental health. The reality is, that at least a third of your population seeking help for their physical health, have experienced some type of trauma, struggling with depression and anxiety and possibly addiction. No matter how hard you work the body, the mind keeps getting in the way.
Mental health is not something we experience in isolation of our physical health.
Our mental health has never been more important to recognize and focus on than in today’s times. More and more people are reaching out about their mental health struggles including those you normally wouldn’t think would struggle like world class athletes including the likes of Michael Phelps, Kyrie Irving and many others. What we are starting to recognize is that our mental health plays a crucial role in our performance and functioning, so when we don’t tend to our mental health it will present itself in one way or another. Depression, addiction, suicidal ideations and attempts are all examples of how mental health has impacted the lives of many.
Recently, COVID has been able to demonstrate how fragile we can feel when experiencing such a severe and unpredictable life event.
When I started providing therapy to adults, one thing became clear: adults that I was seeing for mental health problems were suffering physically. There was this cycle of anxiety and stress exacerbating physical pain which in turn caused more stress and anxiety. The challenge was, “How can I interrupt this cycle without tending to the physical self?”
The whole self had to be addressed because our brain and body are both impacted by adversity and trauma in our life.
The first real noticeable study that demonstrated this was the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study (1985) where almost by accident, we learned how life events can really change and alter our health and well being.
The origin of the ACEs study started with Dr. Vincent Felitti who was running a weight loss clinic. After initial success with weight loss, but not seeing sustainability with these losses, he decided to explore this struggle. What was of particular note was this pattern of trauma that presented itself in most cases of weight loss struggles within this particular group. This led to the development of this study to look at a 10-question survey highlighting various types of adverse events like physical and sexual abuse, substance abuse in the home, or having a parent in prison.
The overarching result was that there was a correlation between adverse childhood experiences and future health and mental health problems. In fact, the ACEs study noted that the more adverse childhood experiences we have experienced growing up, the more severe the impact on health and wellbeing including a large reduction in life-expectancy. Having four or more adverse experiences on the ACE’s survey correlated with a life expectancy reduction of 20 years.
From a neurological perspective this makes sense because our ability to function is related to our ability to tolerate stress. Being able to tolerate stress is tied to our regulatory capacities often referred to our Core Regulation Network. In other words, regulating is our ability to regain balance when we experience stress.
For example, if our glucose levels drop, this indicates to our brain that we are hungry and will lead to a cascade of electrical and chemical changes in order to regain balance by eating a meal. The ability of our core regulation network to work efficiently and effectively has everything to do with our life experiences.
The pattern in which we experience adversity in life and our ability to recover determines the likelihood for mental health problems or injury. This concept is not only true for mental health but also physical health. The pattern in which we stress our body physically determines the likelihood for growth or injury. These siloed worlds are not only similar but they are crucial in our journey to healing.
As we all can imagine, if we struggle to move or feel physically weak, we are going to struggle mentally. We will feel vulnerable, anxious, and likely depressed as a result of these physical limitations. On the flip side, if we are experiencing depression, anxiety, and overwhelming stress, our physical self is often directly impacted. We neglect ourselves by moving less, not exercising and likely engaging in maladaptive coping such as overeating and substance use.
As our physical self and emotional self are interconnected, so is our ability to heal. The first thing is to recognize how the stress response system impacts our functioning and subsequently our mental and physical health.
Stress is inherently not a bad thing and in fact it is a necessary component to strength and wellness.
In fact, stress is really any event that disrupts our homeostasis. Our brain responds to these disruptions continuously throughout the day. Our effectiveness at dealing with stress is based on our historical experience with stress, and more specifically the pattern we’ve experienced. If we experience stress in an unpredictable, severe, and prolonged way, then we will experience vulnerability in our stress response system - meaning a sensitized, over-reactive stress response.
As a result, we are often in states of threat and survival, engaging in fight or flight behavior and rarely able to feel calm. In those situations, our body is geared toward a short term goal, to survive. This sensitization is a key factor in many of our mental health disorders but also our physical health problems. Chronic activation of our stress response elicits a cascade of internal responses that will take a toll on our mental capacity and physical self.
On the upside, if there is a pattern that creates vulnerability there is also a pattern of stress that creates resilience. When we experience stress in a predictable, moderate and controlled pattern, we are building a resilient stress response. Although the unpredictable life events are not something within our control, we can buffer the impact of those times through patterned, predictable and repetitive doses of activity that creates both healing of the body and mind.
Living in the world is really about staying in balance. The brain has the primary responsibility of maintaining that equilibrium. When we are not in balance our physical and emotional health reflect that through dysregulation.
Depression and anxiety tell us that our brain is out of balance and we need to find ways to regain that balance. The purpose of psychotropic medications is to regain balance through the influence of neurotransmitters by the medication prescribed. Sometimes we get dysregulated because of our physical health like getting the flu or as we have experienced recently contracting COVID.
Additionally, our stress response is malleable, meaning that life events that are severe and unpredictable have the ability to change our stress response to be more sensitized and reactive. One day you might not have much to worry about and are doing well for yourself. You are not necessarily doing anything to take care of your mental health or physical health for that matter because there might not be an impetus for those types of activities. Then, a life event like contracting a major illness or losing someone you love can really have an impact that changes your functioning.
As our stress response is malleable to negative life experiences, it is also malleable to positive, resilience building experiences or activities. Pressing reset builds resilience. In fact, if we create a patterned, predictable schedule of pressing reset, we will create a resilient stress response system.
At my behavioral health agency, Life & Purpose Behavioral Health, we focus on using the resets proactively to positively shape a clients’ stress response system but also responsively as coping skills for clients to use when recognizing their stress activation.
Although the ACE’s study brought to light the impact of trauma and adversity on our health, the study did not recognize the impact of resilience building activities like relational support and tending to our physical health. As an OS Coach, physical fitness instructor, or physical therapist you have the unique opportunity to be a part of the client’s therapeutic web.
Not only are you a resource to build their physical health but by the very act of supporting their journey, for example, as they learn to Press Reset, you are building buffers that counteract the adversities that they have experienced in their life.
The number one factor in resilience research is having one positive relationship in the person’s life. For your client or patient, combining a positive therapeutic relationship with an activity like Pressing Reset that provides a safe experience for their body intensifies the impact of this positive relationship and experience. This is huge because a positive, relational experience is the most powerful reward for the human brain.
The brain and body are connected in everything we do. One doesn’t function without impacting the other.
There are noticeable limits to focusing only the mind or only on the body so it is imperative that we break out of our siloed worlds and combine our resources and knowledge to create a more holistic wellness experience for all the people in our care.
Douglas Pfeifer MA, LPCC-S
Chief Executive Officer
Life & Purpose Behavioral Health
OS Certified Coach