Research shows that being in tune with our bodies can help us make better decisions, rebound more readily from stressful situations, and manage emotions more effectively — yet the brain and body remain separate domains in science and culture to the detriment of mental health.
Indulge me in a brief experiment. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and point to the part of your body responsible for intelligence. Next, point to the part of your body responsible for mental health.
Did you point to your brain both times? If so, you’re not alone. For too long, I also lived with the belief that my intelligence and emotional well-being were all in my head and have had to spend years learning to reconnect to my body.
Now, as a healthcare CEO who is keenly aware of the dire state of mental health in the United States, I believe it’s time to acknowledge that our bodies are a crucial missing piece in the conversations about mental health. 4x as many American adults reported anxiety and/or depressive disorder in the first half of January 2021 v. 2019. Research shows that being in tune with our bodies can help us make better decisions, rebound more readily from stressful situations, and manage emotions more effectively — yet the brain and body remain separate domains in science and culture.
The history of body and brain decoupling
Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” was just the start of Western culture’s obsession with the brain. As children, we spend the majority of our waking life in school, cultivating wisdom from the neck up. Our brains, we’re told, are the source of our superpowers. Bodies? Well, bodies are only here to provide the brain with energy and do its bidding.
A classic example: our entire educational system is designed to keep kids sitting still under the premise that the best thinking is done quietly, without moving, sitting at a desk. Yet “students are ‘more focused, confident, and productive when given license to move,” according to Annie Murphy Paul, author of The Extended Mind.
As philosophers and scientists elevated the brain, they downplayed the role of the body in intelligence.
As philosophers and scientists elevated the brain, they downplayed the role of the body in intelligence. Many believed that bodily sensations should not be trusted and that truth emerges only after emotions subside. (If you’re reading this through a gendered lens, you’re not wrong, but more on that later.)
The healthcare system further cemented this perspective by decoupling the brain and body in medical education and in licensure, with some doctors focused on mental health and others in physical health.
My search for brain-body connection
I was the kid who grew up quite “brainy.” Straight As, textbook klustky, and not so great at sports. That I experienced stomach problems and ulcers at a young age was besides the point, or so I thought.
Throughout my 20s, I felt particularly disconnected from my body. I was a young VP at a hot startup and my mantras were “work hard,” “work late,” “don’t sleep,” “don’t cry,” “fake it ’til you make it,” and “power through. My health issues only got worse. I suffered from mild yet chronic anxiety, experienced painful sex, and had been living with ulcerative colitis for 15+ years.
Gut feelings came and went, ignored because they emanated from my intuition and not my “head.”
Maybe because of the pain — or in spite of it — I ignored my body. I told all of my parts to stay quiet except during select moments when they were supposed to be “on.” I tried to solve my health problems by going outward. I sought care for my health conditions, saw dozens of doctors, and googled to no end. But, I rarely listened inward. Gut feelings came and went, ignored because they emanated from my intuition and not my “head.”
My experience was not uncommon, given our cultural conditioning. As neuroscience researchers from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Mallory Feldman and Kristen Lindquist, explain in a 2021 OpEd, “Many women are taught and believe that they’re more emotional than men, that their bodies are more difficult to understand, or that their sensations are biased and should be ignored.”
For me, pelvic floor physical therapy connected the dots, helping me realize how my body and brain were working together to fuel my pain.
It took a full emotional breakdown at the end of a yoga class in 2018 for me to realize I was totally disconnected from my body and my intuition. From there, I experimented with a number of practices to regain a more embodied connection: meditation, yoga, somatic experience, acupuncture, functional medicine, coaching, hypnosis, and daily journaling to name a few. Later that year, a friend (and now business partner) who went through something similar introduced me to pelvic floor physical therapy. For me, pelvic floor physical therapy connected the dots, helping me realize how my body and brain were working together to fuel my pain response — and how changing that response would require both physical and mental effort.
The knowledge I gained was so powerful, it inspired me to co-found Origin, a pelvic floor and full body PT company dedicated to helping women and all individuals with vaginal anatomy feel better in their bodies, by considering their entire person — brain and body.
The time for change is now
I believe that the longer we, as individuals, and then as a system, perpetuate the myth that mental health is all in our heads (and, conversely, that physical health isn’t impacted by our thoughts or beliefs), the worse our ills will be. Too many kids are being told to suppress emotions in a way that will catch up to them later. The mental health statistics for adults make that clear.
Rather than suppressing emotion and feeling, we need to learn how to tune into our bodies, as individuals and as a society. (This is particularly important for women, who have been told they were “hysterical” since Greek and Roman times.)
And I’m encouraged to see some positive movement in this direction.
Over the last decade, there’s been a groundswell of research supporting a paradigm shift to break the construct of mind and body dualism.
Over the last decade, there’s been a groundswell of research supporting a paradigm shift to break the construct of mind and body dualism — i.e., that the two are distinct, or that the brain tells the body what to do — and instead, pointing to an interwoven, symbiotic relationship in which the brain and body are in constant communication.
With the help of pop science books like Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind, Simon Roberts in The Power of Not Thinking, and Kimberly Wilson’s How to Build a Healthy Brain, this research is bringing mainstream attention to topics like the gut-brain axis (the two-way conversation between our gut and brain), interoception (how the mind perceives bodily sensation), and whole body mental health (the relationship between food, sleep, social interactions, and other factors and “mental” health issues).
The shared message is that the brain works in concert with our bodies to help us understand and react to the world around us, to learn, to connect, and to make smart decisions. Simply put, the brain + body = mind.
Even with the majority of us spending hours living in alternate realities, more time attuning to the information on our phones than in our human systems, I remain hopeful as I see this paradigm shift underway. It’s poised to dramatically improve our lives — if we can only get out of our heads.
This essay was originally published on medium.