Throughout history, the connection between the body and mind was intuitively understood by healers and lay people alike. Some of the most popular mind-body techniques today can be traced to ancient times, including meditation and yoga.
Then came the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason. In Western philosophy, science took precedence over spirit, and medicine followed suit. By the twentieth century, modern medicine focused solely on the body. Traditional approaches to healing that encompassed the mind, body, and spirit were cast aside for white coats, medications, and statistical studies.
But something was missing.
In the 1960s, as Eastern philosophy and culture gained popularity in the West, people all over the world began to rediscover why relaxation is important for the mind and the body.
Time and again, clinical research has validated the mind-body connection as a key to health.
Today, integrative medicine harnesses the ancient intuition and wisdom that was buried for so long. As a result, more people are turning to mind-body healing techniques as a path to health and wellbeing, and discovering the innate power that resides in all of us to promote our own healing.
What are mind-body techniques?
Mind-body techniques are a variety of therapies that help heal physical ailments by working on the mind. Unlike the modern medical approach, which focuses on biological causes and often resorts to popping pills or surgical treatment, mind-body medicine uses the mind’s capabilities to promote and support physical healing.
Today, integrative health specialists suggest using mind relaxation techniques as an adjunct to medical interventions. Mind-body therapies can also be used on their own, as an alternative treatment when biomedicine cannot provide an answer. Many people use mind-body therapy to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and other mental health conditions. It is also effective as a preventative measure to reduce the risk of chronic illness, both physical and mental.
Biofeedback is an example of a popular mind-body technique. With a personal biofeedback device such as Reflect, individuals can strengthen the mind-body connection by learning to identify and calm the physiological reactions to stress as they occur.
How does mind-body medicine work?
The mind and body are intimately connected. When a person is under cognitive stress, such as cramming before an exam, they may clench their jaw and stiffen their neck muscles, which causes headaches.
If a person gets a shock, such as finding out they have lost their job, the brain triggers a release of stress hormones that constrict blood vessels so that blood can move around the body faster, preparing for the well-known “fight or flight” response. This leads to flushed cheeks, cold and clammy hands, rapid breathing, and a host of other nervous symptoms.
These are just two examples of the mind-body connection and the immutable link between the two. In both these scenarios, the path from stress to physical symptoms is clear, and the question “Why is relaxation important to the mind” is easily answered.
In recent years, science has uncovered even more fascinating and hidden connections between the mind and body. Take the gut, for example. “Butterflies in the stomach” is a universal and familiar response to nervousness and excitement. But why do we get a nervous tummy? Recent research points to the fact that the gut can transmit intelligence to the body, much the same way as the brain, triggering digestive issues that are common during stress. This is due to the activity of the enteric nervous system (ENS), and it’s why the gut is now regarded by scientists as the “second brain”.
There are many more mysteries of the mind-body connection that will be revealed as science progresses. In the meantime, here are several proven techniques that you can practice today for mind and body relaxation, pain management, and mental health.
8 mind-body techniques
Meditation is an ancient Eastern practice that trains the individual to be fully focused and present in the moment. There are several different types of meditation, but the principle is the same: to focus one’s attention completely on a specific thing, usually the breath or a visual focal point.
As the mind begins to wander during meditation, the individual learns to bring it back to the present moment. Over time, they are able to ‘sit’ with difficult thoughts and feelings, and to become more accepting of them. This reduces the tendency to become ‘triggered’ and alleviates emotional dysregulation.
Meditation is an excellent way to counteract stress, anxiety, and negative emotions, such as anger. Its impact extends to the body, reducing heart rate and blood pressure, and lowering levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the bloodstream.
Regular practice enhances self-awareness and increases resilience to the challenges of life. Science has shown that meditation can even help ‘rewire’ the brain, strengthening neural pathways, and bolstering cognitive function and performance.
How to get started: Meditation is an excellent mind-body technique that is available for anyone to try. You don’t need any special equipment, just a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed. There are several meditation apps and thousands of free meditation videos online. The main thing to remember about meditation is to practice regularly, every day if possible. This is necessary to gain the benefits.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a psychological technique that is known to be effective in treating mind-body disorders, such as anxiety, insomnia, and depression. During CBT, the individual learns to identify and modify negative thought patterns and perceptions and adapt self-defeating behaviors to create a more positive mindset.
During sessions with a CBT therapist, people learn practical strategies for cognitive restructuring and are provided with tools to challenge distorted beliefs and replace them with rational perspectives. This process enhances emotional regulation and problem-solving skills. Like meditation, CBT remodels neural pathways, fostering long-term positive changes in brain function that affect mental and emotional well-being.
How to get started: CBT is a highly-regarded and clinically proven psychological therapy. In the hands of a skilled CBT practitioner, individuals can enhance their own healing for mind-body disorders. Ask your family physician for recommendations for a qualified CBT therapist in your area.
Guided imagery is an immersive healing technique that can lead to heightened mental and emotional well-being. During guided imagery, the individual closes their eyes and is ‘guided’ via a therapist or audio recording through vividly descriptive narratives designed to promote a calm mental landscape.
Guided imagery works by tapping into the mind's creative potential. As the individual visualize positive scenarios, the brain responds by releasing neurotransmitters that foster a sense of calm and well-being. The practice of guided imagery triggers neural pathways associated with pleasure and contentment, enhancing emotional regulation and helping the individual to shift perspective.
Regular use of guided imagery has even been proven to boost the body’s immune response, helping to prevent illness and promote healing. It can be used as a standalone therapeutic tool or as a complementary treatment for enhanced physical and mental resilience.
How to get started: There are several online resources and apps for guided imagery sessions that you can do on your own. Alternatively, you can choose to work with a guided imagery specialist, either one-on-one or in a group setting. Individual guided imagery therapy has a key advantage: sessions can be tailored to your specific emotional challenges and needs.
Biofeedback is a clinically proven mind-body technique that trains the individual to become aware of their body’s physiological responses as they occur. This is done with the help of a biofeedback device that tracks things like heart rate, breathing patterns, and even brain wave activity via sensors applied to the skin.
These are displayed to the individual in real-time on the biofeedback device. During the session, the individual is guided through relaxation techniques and sees how their body responds. With this knowledge, they can learn how to control their physiological reactions and achieve a sense of calm.
The lessons learned in biofeedback can be applied to everyday life, giving people the skills to consciously calm their stress response, become more emotionally regulated, and reduce the uncomfortable physical symptoms of anxiety.
Studies indicate that biofeedback can help alleviate a wide range of ailments that have both physical and emotional causes, including high blood pressure, headache and migraine, chronic pain, and digestive issues. It can also promote better cognitive functioning, such as improved memory and concentration, and provide relief from ADHD.
How to get started: Biofeedback can be done with a specialized practitioner in a clinic. Alternatively, biofeedback devices for personal use are now readily available, so individuals can practice biofeedback at home and at their convenience.
With the Reflect personal biofeedback device, there is no need to apply any sensors. Simply place your hands on the Orb and the device will track your physiological responses directly through the skin.
Yoga is probably the oldest mind-body technique, originating in India around 5000 years ago. It is revered all over the world as a transformative and healing practice that encompasses physical, mental, and spiritual discipline.
Through a series of postures, controlled breathing, and meditation, yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing the impact of stress and promoting relaxation. The synchronization of breath and movement cultivates mindfulness, enhancing emotional regulation.
The physical aspect of yoga helps to improve flexibility, strength, and balance. Yoga also enhances blood circulation and oxygenates the organs and muscles, boosting health and healing.
Beyond the physical benefits, yoga improves self-awareness and is effective in managing a wide range of conditions, including anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.
How to get started: Thanks to its global popularity, there are endless resources for yoga practice. Check your local area for yoga studios and classes, or search online for beginner yoga tutorials and practice in the comfort of your home at your own pace.
Aromatherapy harnesses the natural effects of plant-derived essential oils to promote well-being. Aromatherapy works by engaging the olfactory system (sense of smell), which triggers different responses in the brain and nervous system.
More specifically, aromatherapy affects the limbic system, the part of the brain that processes emotions and memories. There is a wide variety of essential oils that you can use in aromatherapy, and each has unique chemical properties that impact the mind and body in different ways. For example, lavender and chamomile have soothing effects, while citrus oil is energizing and may help reduce anxiety and depression.
How to get started: Consult with an aromatherapy specialist who can recommend the essential oils that will work best for your particular challenges and needs. Use an aromatherapy diffuser at home or at work, and dab a small amount of oil behind your ears to take the scent with you during the day.
Massage therapy ostensibly involves the body, however it is a powerful holistic practice with mental and emotional benefits too. Through skilled manipulation of muscles and soft tissues, massage relieves stress and promotes relaxation. Massage therapy improves blood circulation, alleviating muscle tension and tissue soreness, which can help reduce joint pain and increase mobility.
Massage can also help create a sense of calm and emotional balance. Massage is known to stimulate the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers and mood enhancers.
The power of touch is an important component of massage therapy; the tactile experience and human connection trigger the body's relaxation response, lowering heart rate and cortisol levels. Regular massage sessions are an enjoyable and soothing way to treat physical and emotional discomfort and improve the well-being of both body and spirit.
How to get started: When choosing a massage therapist, make sure they have the necessary qualifications and accreditations. Ask your physician for a referral to a reputable massage therapist, or ask friends and family for recommendations.
Similar to tai chi, qigong is an ancient Chinese tradition that uses a combination of body posture techniques, breathing, gentle movement, and meditation to enhance mind-body relaxation. It is believed to cultivate the harmonious flow of vital energy (qi) within the body. By ‘unblocking’ energy pathways, qigong aims to enhance mental clarity and healing.
The deliberate movements and rhythmic breathing of qigong induce a sense of calm, activating the body's natural healing mechanisms. It is very effective for people with chronic conditions, such as fibromyalgia, high blood pressure, and musculoskeletal pain.
The physical benefits of qigong include enhanced flexibility, balance, and vitality. Clinical indications show that qigong practice can reduce stress hormones and promote neurotransmitters that contribute to emotional regulation. People who practice qigong regularly attest to its powerful effects, encouraging the alignment of energy and intention for healing and well-being.
How to get started: Qigong is a powerful and complex practice. Find a local practitioner or qigong studio where you can get proper guidance in the correct form and techniques.
Does mind-body medicine really work?
Most people have experienced mind-body disorders before, whether it be anxiety, insomnia, chronic headaches, or digestive upsets. Before trying mind-body healing techniques, it is important to have any medical complaints checked by your doctor to rule out physical causes, infection, or disease.
If no biomedical explanation is found, then you may have an issue that can be greatly helped or alleviated by working on the mind-body connection.
Mind-body exercise examples include deep breathing and meditation to help reduce the symptoms of anxiety, yoga to ease muscle tension, or biofeedback to strengthen the conscious connection between the mind and body.
While absolute results can be difficult to obtain in a lab, many scientific studies have shown that mind-body healing therapies are an important and effective part of curing and relieving a range of chronic ailments.
So, if your doctor has said that there is no physical diagnosis, and if you intuitively feel that stress may be playing a part in your health issues, consider trying mind-body medicine as an alternative.
Western vs. Eastern medicine
Over centuries of Western enlightened philosophy, biomedical researchers found their home in the lab, where they became preoccupied with finding the magic pill for physical ailments. While modern medicine has made incredible life-saving leaps and bounds, there is much to be learned from Eastern medicine about how to manage chronic, ongoing, and non-acute symptoms.
When it is time for healing relaxation for mind and body, turn to the techniques above, inspired by the East and proven clinically by the West, to improve your well-being and lead a healthier, satisfying life.