The mind-body connection can help you understand that sleep isn’t just something you do: it’s how you treat yourself.

a white lotus flower

The connection between your mind and body is a fascinating tale. The physical sensations you feel are so closely intertwined with your emotions, and it’s called the mind-body connection. The two interact constantly in ways we’re only beginning to understand.

What this means is your physical and emotional bodies aren’t separate entities1. Your physical health affects your mind, and your mind affects your physical health – for better or for worse.

To start, it’s important to point out that the mind and physical brain aren’t the same thing. Your mind is where your mental states, such as thoughts, emotions, beliefs, attitudes, and images, exist2. And your brain is the mechanism that allows you to experience these mental states. 

The Chicken or the Egg: The Mind-Body Connection

How our physical health affects our mind is well documented. Just look to any bodily ailment or environmental hazard that humans encounter. Air pollution is linked to higher anxiety and suicidal thoughts in children3. Off-balance gut microbiomes are closely linked with anxiety and depression4. Stress alters white cell function that helps ward off infections and disease5

The reverse mind-body connection (our mind affecting our physical health) hasn’t been as well studied. This concept has been widely believed across cultures for nearly a millennium. In the western world, however, it wasn’t accepted until the latter part of the 20th century. And only recently taken more seriously in academia. 

But scientific research has so far shown what many have already believed to be true for a long time. Our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and attitudes affect our physical health by sending corresponding physical signals in our body6. It doesn’t even matter if these mental states are positive or negative, or part of our conscious awareness or not, they still show up in our bodies7

As Dr. James Gordon, the founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, said:

the brain and peripheral nervous system, the endocrine and immune systems, and indeed, all the organs of our body and all the emotional responses we have, share a common chemical language and are constantly communicating with one another.

Mapping Emotions

To take things further, researchers in Finland have mapped where we feel certain emotions, whether it’s fear in our hearts or the warm glow of happiness8. There is also a more recent study from the same researchers (2018) that maps over 100 different states (positive emotions, negative emotions, cognitive processes, somatic states, and illnesses). What is truly remarkable is how specific emotions correspond to specific body parts across cultures, with only minor differences between people who live in the eastern world and western world, and men and women9.

a map of the mind-body connection.
Figure 2 (Nummenmaa, Glerean, Hari, and Hietanen, 2014)

To start, take a look at the scale on the right. It is the activation (or deactivation) of emotions in the body. In other words, it’s how much you physically feel emotions in certain parts of the body. 

Now take a look at the figure on the furthest top right of the image. This shows our natural ‘neutral state’ of 0. 

Strong Emotions = Strong Body Sensations

Next, compare the activated figures: happiness (middle, top row) and love (second from the left, bottom row). They show strong full-body activations, like your whole body gets a warm, fuzzy feeling when you feel positive emotions. Though interestingly but not surprisingly, happiness’s strongest activation point is the heart and head, and love is the heart, face, and groin. 

There are other emotions with strong activations in the mind-body connection. Anger (far right, top row), for example, is localised to the upper part of the body. The hands and mouth area are much more energized than happiness, showing an activated fight-or-flight response. 

An interesting comparison to note is the difference between fear (second from the left, top row) and anxiety (far left, bottom row). It almost appears as if anxiety is a similar, but more heightened, emotion than fear. The biggest difference is with anxiety you feel it more in your chest and less in your legs. 

Into the Void

Now take a look at depression (third from the left, bottom row) and sadness (third from the right, top row). They both show an emotional void, except sadness is felt in the heart, throat, and eyes. Makes sense – when we’re sad, we’re “heartbroken”, “choked up” and get “teary eyed”. However, depression is apathy – a complete void, like we’ve lost our sense of self. There’s a great comic by Hyperbole and a Half that has been described as a powerfully accurate representation of depression.

a cartoon picture of a depressed girl on a couch by hyberbole and a half

So what does this all mean?

The body indeed feels emotions. Some of the many physical ailments caused by negative thoughts and emotions you may experience are nausea, a sore back, tense muscles, intestinal distress, and a clenched jaw. It’s an interesting interplay where once you notice it, it becomes apparent what you’re feeling just by paying attention to your body.

Emotions are there for a reason. The mind-body connection is screaming at you to listen.

The goal here isn’t to “get rid of” your emotions. We as humans have pretty cool brains that do all sorts of neat things. One of those things is to make us aware of emotions in an effort to survive. They are there to tell you something important. 

Sadness for example, indicates a loss. It means we need to slow down and process things. Anger signifies a boundary has been crossed when we get angry. (Gustafson, 2019). Guilt shows us that we didn’t live up to our own values. (Guilt is not to be confused with the concept of shame, which is a general feeling of contempt, unworthiness, and inadequacy in yourself imposed by external sources10).

Conversely, love and happiness are there to provide those lovely love hormones that make us want to connect more and create meaningful bonds with people (Gustafson, 2019). Gratitude is within you to give yourself some compassion for who you are, who you were, and who you will be. 

brown wooden blocks that say deep breath

They are like little messengers telling you what to do with yourself. How you respond to those emotions can make things better for you – or much worse. This is the cognitive defusion concept where we allow ourselves to feel. But we need to hone in how we react, and the intensity of that reaction.

So no, your thoughts and emotions aren’t “all in your head”.

I know that’s different from what you may have been led to believe as a child by a well-meaning, but emotionally vacuous adult. With that being said, there are methods of changing your relationship to your thoughts and emotions which I touched on in week 3. I will continue to discuss in weeks 4 and 5. 

If you think you can just “let go” of your emotions (aka ignore them), you aren’t doing yourself any favours. In fact may be hurting yourself further. One study found that suppressing emotions causes a poorer memory11 and another found that bottling up emotions causes aggression12

Of course, the other reason you shouldn’t ignore thoughts and emotions is that they cause physical aches and pains. And the more you ignore them, the more they try to get your attention by producing symptoms in my body. This is particularly true for negative emotions. 

So stop ignoring and start acknowledging your emotions.

Yes, YOU. The person reading this. I know you are avoiding something that needs some loving attention. 

You know how I know?

Because you have insomnia. 

As The School of Life said:

insomnia is the mind’s revenge for something extremely important we have forgotten to do in the day, namely, think.

Your body is displaying what I think is the ultimate “HEY LOOK AT ME!” symptoms. You can’t ignore insomnia – it’s persistent, adamant, and determined to get your attention. It’s the a glaring mind-body connection you can’t ignore. It’s always there to knock on your door. It won’t hesitate to remind you you need to feel unfelt feelings and think unthought thoughts.   

As I have mentioned on both the front and about page, I no longer have chronic insomnia. But that doesn’t mean a sleepless night doesn’t pop up sometimes. This is the reason why a night of poor sleep pops up, even after five years of overcoming chronic insomnia. I need to acknowledge something and deal with it. Once I do that, I sleep. 

If you feel like you don’t quite understand why you feel a certain way, these maps of the physical body is one way to recognise what you’re feeling. For example, you may not even know you feel particularly anxious until you are aware of how tight your chest feels. There are other ways to understand yourself better, and I’ll get into those ways next.

Additional References

Gustafson, C. (2019). Rockyridge Press, Emeryville, California. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 7 Weeks. Chapter 1, Page 12.