The mind-body connection is getting a lot of attention these days. This connection is nothing new. We’ve all experienced it: when you’re sick or in pain your mood dips, when you’re having a stressful week you notice your shoulders are more tense.
But how is it all connected?
The answer is (sort of) simple. It’s your nervous system that acts as the bridge between mind and body.
There are some other connections that are worth mentioning too, but for this article I’ll focus just on the nervous system.
When I say “nervous system” I’m referring to your brain, your spinal cord, and all of the nerves that branch off the spinal cord and run to all the structures in your body. These nerves are responsible for transmitting information. They move information in two directions: from the brain down to the body, and from the body up to the brain. You can think of it like a highway with cars on one side travelling north, and cars on the other side moving south.
Nerves signals running from the brain down to the body transmit “motor” information about how the brain wants the body to move or react. Example: the brain tells you to reach your hand out and grab the doorknob when you want to open a door. Nerve signals travelling in the other direction (from the body up to the brain) transmit “sensory” information about physical sensations. Example: as you sit outside on a hot day, nerves send signals up from your body to let your brain know that your body temperature is rising.
Any therapy or practice that works to influence how you feel by starting at the brain can be called a “top-down” approach. Example: mindfulness meditation can calm the nervous system by using the conscious brain to create ease in the breath and release tension from the body.
Any therapy or practice that influences the nervous system by working on the body can be called a “bottom-up” approach. Example: going for a run or getting a massage can shift your mood/mental state.
“Top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches work differently, and both can effectively shift the state of your nervous system. You might notice that you have a preference for one or the other. To make big lasting changes in the state of our nervous system most people do best with a combination of both top-down and bottom-up strategies.
In my practice with patients, I find it most helpful to combine both top-down and bottom-up treatments to deepen and accelerate the healing process.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic and how it relates to trauma, I recommend the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, MD.