For centuries, physicians have discussed the mind body connection and its implications on mental health, physical health, as well as illness and chronic disease. Between new science discussing the gut brain axis, dopamine’s effects on movement, and the connection between our thoughts and hormones, we know that the mind directly impacts the body, but how deep does this connection really go? Can negative thoughts actually hurt the body, cause joint pain, and make muscles more tense? Likewise, can improving our patterns of movement change our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors for the better? What is the difference between stress and strain, and how can we use the effects of stress vs. strain to our benefit? This article is going to discuss the connection between our body and emotions, as well as how improving our movement patterns can improve our mental health.
Mind Body Connection
The mind-body connection is broadly defined as the relationship between a person’s mental-emotional state (mind) and their physical health/well-being (body). It suggests that an individual’s thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and attitudes can significantly influence their physiological functioning, immune system, hormonal balance, and overall health. For example, psychological stress can lead to physical symptoms like headaches, muscle tension, or digestive issues. Conversely, physical conditions or illnesses impact a person’s mental state causing anxiety, depression, or mood disturbances.
Gut Brain Axis
The gut-brain axis is a recently discovered phenomenon that depicts the mind-body connection at work. The gut-brain axis is a complex bidirectional communication system between the GI tract and the central nervous system (spinal cord and brain) which influences various aspects of your physical and mental health. Your gut microbiota (bacteria in the gut) sends signals to the brain that produce neurochemicals and hormones which directly influence your thoughts and emotions. Likewise, your thoughts and emotions can send signals to the gut which change the composition of your gut microbiota and respectively alter your hormone production. That’s all to say that through your gut, your thoughts, emotions, hormones, and neurotransmitters, all interact with one another to directly influence what you feel in your body and your mind. In other words, gut dysregulation can cause physical disease, as well as mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, while a healthy gut can make you stronger, healthier, happier and less stressed.
Depression and Joint Pain
Depression’s impact on joint pain is well documented in the literature. According to a study published by Madhukar H. Trivedi M.D, a psychiatrist from UT southwestern medical center, “Physical symptoms are common in depression”, in fact, “physical symptoms such as chronic joint pain, limb pain, back pain, gastrointestinal problems, tiredness, sleep disturbances, psychomotor activity changes, and appetite changes are often the presenting symptoms of depression”.
Moreover, “A high percentage of patients with depression who seek treatment in a primary care setting only report physical symptoms”. Physical pain and depression have deep biological connections; two neurotransmitters that influence both pain and mood are serotonin and norepinephrine. In fact, dysregulation of these transmitters is known to cause both depression and pain. What this suggests is that not only does depression disrupt the gut brain axis which causes joint pain, but joint pain itself can disrupt the gut brain axis, which has a direct negative impact on our mental health. What I’m trying to say is that the connection between joint pain and mental health is a two way street. While joint pain itself can make you more stressed out and scatter-brained, improving your postural and movement imbalances can make you calmer and happier.
Stress vs. Strain
Understanding the Connection Between Joint Hypermobility and Anxiety
Many FP practitioners find that individuals with hypermobile joints (joints with unusually large ranges of motion) experience higher levels of anxiety. In fact, according to researchers from the University of Sussex, young people with joint hypermobility are more likely to have depression and anxiety, and that psychiatric symptoms are also more severe among hypermobile patients. The literature widely supports the fact that Joint Hypermobility is overrepresented among people with anxiety and is even associated with abnormal autonomic reactivity (poor response to environmental changes, emotional states, and stressors). Moreover, in a study published by Jessica Eccles in the British Journal of Psychiatry, researchers conducted brain imaging to observe the correlation between joint hypermobility and anxiety. The study found that bilateral amygdala volume was greater in the hypermobile group than in the non-hypermobile group. Larger amygdalae are directly correlated with higher rates of anxiety. Interestingly, the study also found that the hypermobile group scored higher for interoceptive sensitivity, a trait commonly associated with anxiety.
Dr. Jessica Eccles also explains that, “In the general population about 20% of people have unusually flexible joints, but in a population of people with anxiety or panic disorder, about 70% have unusually flexible joints”.
Examples of common practices that increase joint hypermobility include Yoga, Pilates, and many forms of stretching.
If anxiety and joint mobility are directly correlated, can one treat anxiety by reducing hypermobility? Well, that’s exactly what we do at FP. At FP, we help clients restore functional ranges of motion by training with respect to the human gait cycle.
Restoring ranges of motion in hypermobile joints can be a challenge because it requires correcting old patterns of movement. When joints are hypermobile, it can be difficult to differentiate between stress on the body, and strain on the body. Stress is defined as at least two stressors that pull or push the body in different directions, whereas stress is simply the force applied to an area.
Stress can be a positive experience leading to hypertrophy and new muscular connections. Strain, on the other hand, can lead to maladaptations due to force applied to the body, leading to compensations and asymmetries, which repeated long-term, can result in pain. Stress and strain are similar physiological phenomena, but differentiating between the two is essential for improving both mental and physical health. The FP protocols discussed below, help people create assurance and certainty in their physical structure which minimize feelings of anxiety.
Protocols for Decreasing Anxiety and Improving Mental Health
Improving your mental health takes commitment, consistency, and real change. At FP, we aim to help our clients improve their mental health by reconnecting them with their paleo-biological blueprint. Specifically, we help people change their behaviors, and improve their thought and movement patterns.
Some protocols include:
- Address Movement Imbalances: When a muscular/movement imbalance pulls or puts pressure on a joint, it then puts strain on that joint which causes the release of pro inflammatory cytokines and other neurotransmitters which cause joint pain. Since joint pain can cause depression, and conditions like hypermobility are strongly associated with anxiety, by improving our postural and movement imbalances, we can effectively take pressure off of our joints and improve our mental health.
- Doing Nothing: Learning how “to do nothing” as a means of slowing down and resetting is a powerful tool for regeneration. While breathwork and meditation practices may have benefits, they are often used as a means of escape. At FP we help clients bring their mind and body to a calm state by intentionally making time to do nothing. Meditation and especially breathwork techniques are grossly overused and often not necessary to achieve a state of relaxation. Simply turning off phones, tuning into nature, or just staring into a fire, all help one get closer to a regenerative state. People who struggle with anxiety don’t need another place to go in order to escape their problems, rather, they just need to sit down with themselves, do nothing, and give their body and mind an opportunity to recalibrate.
- Sun and Grounding: Sufficient sun exposure and grounding are frequently looked over by “health professionals.” There is however a lot of new science to support grounding as a means of improving redox potential. Getting sufficient sunlight and vitamin D can be difficult to track. At FP, we recommend using the D-minder app to measure your sun exposure and ensure that you’re getting enough vitamin D.
Our bodies directly impact how we feel on a regular basis. At FP we believe that postural dysfunction and muscular imbalance may be the root cause as well as the solution to many of the psycho-emotional problems we face.
While there are no definitive studies discussing how improving efficiency of movement can improve mental health, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that if our bodies are less stressed out, our minds will be more relaxed. Learning to adapt to stress and reduce mechanical strain is key for becoming more resilient as well as reducing anxiety. Through improving our biomechanics (patterns of movement), we can actually begin to think more calm thoughts, become more confident, and live more fulfilling lives.
Between our joints, muscles, gut, and brain, our bodies are connected in a multitude of ways that we are continuously learning about and discovering. The brain is not separate from the body, and treating the brain without accounting for what’s going on in the rest of the body will certainly not yield the best results. Over 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates proclaimed that “all disease begins in the gut”, modern medicine has proved that statement to be true. The gut, body, and brain, are intrinsically tied which begs the question, can more efficient patterns of movement strengthen your gut and make you more resilient to disease, depression, anxiety, and other ailments? At FP, we believe the answer is a resounding yes.