Why understanding the mind-body connection is important

Published 30th May 2024 by PB Admin

Understanding the connection between the body and mind is important not just for our own wellbeing, but also for clients’ mental health and treatment outcomes. Massage therapist and mental wellness advocate Hayley Snishko explains how

When was the last time you experienced a powerful emotion? Perhaps it was anxiety, sadness or excitement.

Take a moment to think about the details of that moment. Can you recall the sensations you felt through your body? The tightness in your chest, knot in your stomach, or tingling in your fingertips?

This interplay between emotions and physical sensations is the mind-body connection.

But why is this important? As massage therapists and beauty therapists, understanding the profound link between our minds and bodies is a way to enhance our wellbeing and that of our clients. 

If we can understand the intricacies of our emotions and the physical responses we feel, this can not only help us navigate our own mental health but ultimately lead to better treatment outcomes for our clients, and improved mental health outcomes after their massage therapy treatments.

I’ve spent many years carrying trauma from my childhood and the mental health conditions that have accompanied it. Will there ever be a point where I can get rid of these traumas? To be honest, I don’t know. 

So instead of trying to cure myself, I’ve learnt to understand my mind, my body and how these things connect to signal to me what’s going on and what I need to do. 

Years of understanding myself have led me to where I am today and this is a big driving factor behind my Massage4mentalhealth campaign.

This campaign and the course I’ve subsequently released are about understanding the impact we as therapists can have on people with mental health conditions by understanding the mind-body connection.

Why do we feel our emotions?

There are many different theories around why and how we feel our emotions.

The James-Lange theory and the Schachter-Singer two-factor theory, for example, give us insights into the connection between our physiological responses and emotional experiences.

One theory that sheds light on both why and how is the Cannon-Bard theory, which states that emotions are not just products of physiological changes in the body; instead, they are distinct and simultaneous processes that are triggered by a stimulus. 

Unlike the James-Lange theory, Cannon-Bard proposes that emotions and physiological reactions have separate origins.

It suggests that when an emotional event occurs, the thalamus sends a signal to the amygdala, a small structure in the brain that processes emotions such as anger or excitement. 

The thalamus also sends a signal to the autonomic nervous system, which then leads to a physical reaction – sweating, trembling, increased heart rate, and so on. 

How do emotions present physically?

Mental health conditions can have both physical and psychological symptoms. Physical symptoms can include bodily sensations like headaches, fatigue or changes in appetite.

Psychological symptoms are changes in a person’s thoughts, emotions or behaviours, such as feelings of sadness, anxiety or difficulty concentrating. 

The relationship between mental and physical health is bidirectional, which means that changes in one can lead to changes in the other. 

For example, if a person is experiencing chronic pain, this can lead to depression or anxiety, which can then exacerbate their physical symptoms. 

On the flip side, if a person is experiencing a mental health condition such as depression, it could lead to physical symptoms such as fatigue or headaches. 

Body mapping is a great tool to help us navigate our emotions and corresponding physical sensations. 

While the research is still in the early stages, there is a study that looked at the 13 emotions and the corresponding activated body parts. 

Below is an excerpt from a research paper titled Bodily maps of emotions, which featured in the National Academy of Sciences’ journal, PNAS: 

“Numerous studies have established that emotion systems prepare us to meet challenges encountered in the environment by adjusting the activation of the cardiovascular, skeletomuscular, neuroendocrine, and autonomic nervous system. 

“This link between emotions and bodily states is also reflected in the way we speak of emotions: a young bride getting married next week may suddenly have ‘cold feet’, severely disappointed lovers may be ‘heartbroken’, and our favourite song may send ‘a shiver down our spine’.” 

The study’s authors created a tool to show how emotions connect to specific bodily sensations. 

It works by mapping these sensations topographically and across cultures. I do suggest reading more about this study to understand body mapping and how they created this information. 

The similarities between their illustration and my own experiences are intriguing, because the physical side of my condition is something I often struggle with. 

As someone who has experienced depression and feeling consistently cold, it’s interesting to see how body temperature is impacted by emotion.

How can we apply the mind-body connection in treatments? 

Now you understand how our emotions manifest physically, what considerations and practices can you make as a therapist giving a treatment to ensure you’re addressing the physical symptoms of your client’s mental wellbeing, and therefore the emotional aspect? 

Emotional pre-assessment: Begin treatments with a brief emotional pre-assessment. Encourage clients to express any dominant emotions or stressors they are experiencing. This will set the foundation for a tailored and emotionally attuned treatment. 

Mindful touch and connection: During the treatment, ensure you’re fully present so that you can employ mindful touch and intentional connection. This involves tuning into the client’s body and noting subtle cues. Adjust your techniques based on the bodily maps, focusing on areas associated with the client’s emotional needs. This should be discussed during your consultation. 

Breathwork integration: Consider incorporating breathwork into your treatments to address emotional states. For example, deep, slow breathing can help trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, activating rest and digest, helping to ease your client’s stressed/anxious state.

Post-treatment reflection: Finish your treatments with a brief reflection on the emotional and physical sensations your client experienced. Encourage them to share any insights or sensations they observed, this will help create awareness of their own mind-body connection, helping them understand what their body may be telling them. 

Recognising the bidirectional relationship between mental health and our physical bodies can be a powerful tool as a therapist, enhancing the way we approach and deliver treatments. 

As someone who has used massage to help alleviate the physical symptoms of my own trauma, I can attest to the difference you make in your clients’ lives. 

But more importantly, this understanding can help us change the way we approach our own self-care, which is essential not only for the longevity of our careers, but also for our ability to look after our clients. 

If you or someone you know is concerned about mental health, it’s important to reach out to a medical professional. For more information, you can visit mental health charity Mind at mind.org.uk

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Hayley Snishko is a massage therapist and owner of Surrey-based mobile business Home Sanctuary. She is the founder of the Massage4mentalhealth awareness campaign and has launched a mental health awareness course for beauty and massage therapists at mindbodytouch.co.uk

Don't miss Snishko's talks at Professional Beauty & Hair Glasgow:

PB Admin

PB Admin

Published 30th May 2024

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