How they work
This is a big question! And of course, the answer differs somewhat from therapy to therapy. But one way that many mind-body therapies impact the body is by reducing stress. So it is helpful to understand what stress is and the role it plays in health and wellbeing.
The role of stress
How does stress impact you? Try this activity.
- Imagine the last time you felt incredible stress or anxiety. Perhaps you had an important meeting, and you missed your plane. Maybe you had a complicated presentation, and you despise public speaking. Or perhaps you underwent important medical testing, and were waiting for the phone to ring with results.
How do you feel? Consider your jaw, neck, breathing.
- Now stop. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply for a few minutes. Gently relax your shoulders, your neck, and your facial muscles.
Now how do you feel? (If you want to continue relaxing, there are activities at the bottom of this page.)
What did you experience?
Most people report that right after imagining a stressful event, their pulse rate was high, their breathing was fast and shallow, and their jaw, neck, and other muscles were tight. Some report that they felt their stomach clenching.
After breathing deeply for only a few seconds, most people report that their pulse and breathing rate decreased and their muscles relaxed.
What happens when your body perceives a threat?
The activity probably provoked what is called a "fight or flight" response because your central nervous system perceived a threat.
When you perceive a threat, your sympathetic nervous system releases stress hormones to arouse key organs, resulting in an increase in your heart and respiratory rate, greater muscle tension, coldness and sweatiness, a decrease in intestinal activity, and an increase in the size of your pupils. This is the fight or flight response. You may have observed some of this yourself.
In contrast, taking deep breaths and focusing on your breathing induces a relaxation response. This response engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which lowers the heart and respiratory rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.
What is stress?
Learn more about stressorsWhen you did the activity, you experienced stress. Stress is a physical reaction. Confusingly, people also sometimes use the term stress when they are talking about events that cause the physical reaction. We call these stressors instead. (Stressors can be negative events, such as divorce or death, but they can also be joyful changes, like getting a new job or going on vacation!)
Stress is what happens in your body when you respond to a stressor (an event). It is your response to the stressor that determines how your body reacts. You can deliberately change your response, as you saw when you breathed deeply and slowed your heart rate.
What are the effects of stress on health?
If you are not able to change your response to the stressors that are so much a part of modern American life, you may find yourself in a continual fight or flight reaction, which over time can lead to serious health consequences, such as high blood pressure, digestive disorders, or diabetes.
Mind-body therapies and practices can help prevent this. But note that the relationship between stress and illness is not a simple one. There is no simple, direct connection between the number and kind of stressors, how you react, and how your physical health is impacted.
Some people misinterpret the mind-body connection and end up blaming themselves for being stressed and sick. This assumes a level of control over their health that isn't realistic. Instead of worrying or blaming, do what you can to take care of yourself, including stress management, but recognize that you don't have complete control.
What are some other effects of stress?
Stress not only impacts bodily functions, it can impact performance at work in a number of ways:
- Difficulty making decisions
- Memory lapses
- Mood swings (for example angry outbursts)
- Physical symptoms on work days, such as upset stomach
An interesting study known as the Yerkes/Dodson law shows that when workers are under stress, their performance initially rises. After a relatively short period however, their performance declines steeply, but the workers are unaware that they are failing. So while a certain amount of stress on the job might spark some initial success, ongoing stress hinders (rather than helps) your efforts.
Unfortunately, if the job itself is the stressor, we end up taking a lot of these reactions home with us. And we all know that common reactions to stress, such as irritability, impatience, indecision, or physical symptoms, make for difficult relationships and family life.
The principles that make mind-body therapies and practices effective in improving physical health, also apply to other aspects of our daily life. These therapies can improve your health and your overall wellbeing.
Mind-body therapies help you change your response to stressors. We outline some of the ways they can do this.
Many of these therapies invoke the relaxation response. As you may have experienced, the relaxation response reverses the physical effects of stress.
Mind-body therapies can also contribute to (or deliberately create) more positive thinking. Evidence shows that people who believe they are doing better actually do better than those who have the same physical condition but aren't as positive. (Research also suggests that anxiety, hostility, depression, and other negative states affect the immune system.)
When people believe that a therapy is working, it often does have a positive effect. This is known as the placebo effect, which is often deliberately invoked by mind-body therapies. (For example, guided imagery and clinical hypnosis can use suggestion that the patient is getting better.)
Social supportis a mind-body therapy in and of itself and is also part of many other mind-body therapies. It has been shown beneficial to health in many studies. "People with supportive social networks have been shown to have better overall health...shorter hospital stays when they do get sick, and better resistance to infection than those whose social bonds are not strong." (Pelletier, 1993.)
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Is there a connection between stress and aging?
According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, there is a direct link between stress and aging.
The study compared the chromosomes of 39 women, ages 20-50, who had been caring for children with serious chronic illnesses (and thus had high levels of stress) with woman caring for healthy children (lower stress).
Women with the highest levels of stress had changes in their chromosomes (specifically, the telomeres) equivalent to at least one decade of additional aging compared with women with lower stress.
But it wasn't only the years of caregiving that related to the change, it was the perception of high stress. Women who had the perception of high stress levels fared the worst. Given this, could mind-body practices that reduce stress also reduce aging?
Techniques to try for stress reduction
Practice sitting meditation with guided instructions from a mindfulness teacher.
Click the button below, then click the Play button on the audio screen. (If you pause the meditation, an ad that says "Explore more music & audio" will appear. To return to the audio, simply click the X in the upper right-hand corner.)
Ahola K, Sirén I, Kivimäki M, Ripatti S, Aromaa A, et al. (2012). Work-related exhaustion and telomere length: A population-based study. PLoS ONE 7(7): e40186.
American Psychological Association topic: Article on Stress
Benson, H. (1993). The relaxation response. In Mind Body Medicine. Goleman, D., Gurin, J. (ed). Consumer Reports Books, New York: Consumer Reports Books.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Kobasa, S., Maddi, S. and Puccetti, M. (1982). Personality and Exercise as Buffers in the Stress-Illness Relationship. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 5, 391-404.
Lawson, K. (2002). Psychoneuroimmunology. In Blackwell Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Fast Facts for Medical Practice. Herring, M. & Roberts, M. (ed). Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing.
Pelletier, K. (1993). Between Mind and Body: Stress, Emotions, and Health in Mind Body Medicine. Goleman, D., Gurin, J. (ed). New York:Consumer Reports Books.