Despite the lack of consensus among psychology theorists on the mind-body relationship, in the last few decades, researchers started to shed light on how the mind and the body reciprocally influence each other. Contrary to common belief, not only thoughts influence the body, but our bodies also
have an impact on our brains’ activity. Our bodies continually send information to the brain influencing cognitive and affective processes and vice versa.
Marcelo Lopes, a professional psychologist specialized in health and mind-body relationship, shares some fascinating facts about psychosomatics and why is it important to understand the connection between our physical and psychological health.
Here is why Marcelo decided to include more bodywork in his professional approach and what determined him to make the relationship between mind and body an area of his expertise:
“To every psychological experience, there’s a physical counterpart. We breathe according to how we feel and vice versa, our bodies adapt postures that match those feelings, and we all can learn to self-regulate addressing ourselves as a whole. This is what I love the most. Since I started my path through psychology, I’ve been fascinated by psychosomatics and the ways the body expresses what happens within. And I have to confess that it always felt incomplete to me to only use psychological techniques. During my masters in health psychology, I was introduced to breathing techniques and mindfulness as means to regulate stress. Later on, I was practicing a lot of these in yoga classes, observing the benefits on my own body. So I started looking for more and more tools, using myself as a lab. I came across conscious movement, different breath works, and active meditations, and eventually, I discovered a school of body psychotherapy that includes all of these. I believe healing must be holistic and I’ve been adding more and more bodywork to my professional practice.”
Eastern philosophy and its knowledge of the mind-body relationship
Only recently we started to receive scientific evidence to confirm the mind-body relationship, but the knowledge about this connection has ancient origins. Marcelo Lopes has an interest in shamanic traditions and eastern philosophies as he finds them revealing a great understanding that is mostly underestimated nowadays.
“In essence, they (shamanic traditions and eastern philosophies) all speak about our tendency to live detached from our own nature. We’ve been living very dysfunctional lifestyles and I’m glad this is gradually changing. Sitting most of the day, in positions our bodies were not designed to, eating processed food and absorbing artificial light and air. Disconnected from our senses and natural rhythms, we pursue socially built concepts that either are illusions or bring about unbalance. So I definitely think their wisdom has been underestimated. They speak about listening to our inner voice, about not identifying with our thoughts or living in our minds, about connecting with our bodies and with nature and seeing ourselves as part of the whole. Sometimes I question how did we end up like this when we had such an understanding.”
Mind and Body after a traumatic experience
People tend to believe that the psychological aspects of our beings are the only ones that suffer after exposure to distressing events, but our bodies are very vulnerable to trauma as well.
Here is what the counselor has to say about which aspects of our beings have a harder time recovering after a traumatic event.
“The word trauma itself implies that there is some degree of damage after exposure to distressing events, but we now know that resilience is the most common human response. And there’s also post-traumatic growth, in which the person experiences a significative development in the process of readjusting. In any case, there’s a moment of transition after the event. And the reason for this is that during a traumatic experience, a lot happens in our brains and bodies: prefrontal cortex reduces activity, limbic system increases activity, the hippocampus starts processing information in a different way and the hypothalamus dramatically changes our hormonal balance – with huger adrenaline and cortisol releases and all the impact they have. For a while, there will be muscular tension, altered breathing patterns, inefficient oxygenation, pH imbalances and so on. All of this, which takes a lot of energy, along with the cognitive impairment… So the transition will be as hard as how affected the person was, and as long as it takes to restore the energy and the sense of safety. While there’s a sense of threat, there’s not much recovering.“
Reconnecting with our bodies: why is it so hard?
If we were to take a moment to reflect on the relationship we have with our bodies, we would realize ( at least the majority of us), that we are not very aware of our bodies and that we don’t pay attention to what they are trying to communicate to us.
Marcelo Lopes considers that we may have a hard time reconnecting with our bodies and taking proper care of them because of certain beliefs that unconsciously lead to self-sabotaging behaviors, lack of awareness and possible blockages or numbness.
“The body is our receptor for all sensations and if what we sense is painful, we might reduce our sensitivity as a defense. Same with breathing, as the more we breathe the more we feel and some people have a tight diaphragm that doesn’t allow them to breathe fully – and thus not feel fully. Beliefs also influence this relationship a lot, as thinking that the body isn’t involved in our psychological balance, or that it only selves an aesthetical purpose, that taking care of it is a form of weakness, will invariably lead to a disconnection from it. And you also mentioned awareness, which I think is key. We’re not always encouraged to be aware of our bodies during our upbringing, more likely we’re asked to be in our minds and focus on abstract concepts rather than the ways we feel or what our inner needs might be. Awareness is the way, as it allows us to see beyond this conditioning, beyond the beliefs we built and also the defenses that interfere with our senses.“
How can we learn to listen to our bodies and tap into their healing power?
“We came into this world equipped with a fantastic device called the vagus nerve. When we reduce stimulation around us and within us, when we breathe fully and slowly, or when we experience something that makes us feel safe, this nerve sends orders to calm the whole nervous system. That’s when healing takes place. This is why the placebo effect is possible. Some forms of imagery and visualization can also activate this response. And there are more ways of activating it. We’re usually too busy in the doing mode, and this can be amazing, but while we’re moving our energy to think and do, there’s not much going into repairing and healing. That’s why it’s important to rest and do nothing every now and then – or do what gives us pleasure. Another amazing fact is that the vagus nerve is connected to the gut, heart, lungs and a few more, and it carries all their intelligence right into the brain. This is where the so-called gut feelings come from and other intuitions related to how could we care for ourselves. Before we knew about this nerve, we already knew that the nervous system played a role in healing. Now we have an incredible set of practices and exercises that help us tap into it.”
To create and maintain a mind-body balance requires awareness, conscious effort and consistency in practices. Marcelo shares with us some essential practices that helped him along the way and that can be helpful for everyone.
“Personally, I benefit a lot from mindfulness and breathwork. Those are the ones I identify with the most, and that’s why they’re the ones I use most in therapy. A few minutes of mindfulness will give us what we need to know about our current state. Our decisions regarding self-care can be so much more effective after getting in touch with this awareness. “
“I understand that it might be frustrating to just sit or lay down and feel our bodies, bit by bit, or look within. I must admit that I resisted it for years and used to think that I wasn’t able or made to meditate. This is why I usually recommend soft breathing practices in the beginning, where the person can see the soothing effects of it and re-learn how to breathe properly. Other practices I enjoy are conscious movement and conscious dancing. Our bodies can speak a lot when we allow them to move freely and authentically, and we can learn things about us that will help in our self-regulation.”
If you are interested in the mind-body relationship and want to find more useful information on this topic, you can follow the content that Marcelo Lopes shares on his Instagram or you can take a look at his psychotherapeutic approach on his website.