The Mind-Body Connection and Staying Well

By Suzanne Hawes, RN, EdD and Nancy Boccuzzi, RN

More than 50 percent of the American population will die from the choices they made in life. Our lifestyles—food intake, exercise, and how we manage our lives—help determine our cause of death. And, each of these variables is within our own ability to understand, control, and accomplish.

Physical signs are obvious factors that can be seen, measured and identified thereby making control easier. However, what cannot be seen or accurately measured are the emotional difficulties from which everyone suffers. Further, the relationship of physical and mental wellness is more intricate than once thought. What affects the body, affects the mind and vice versa. Mens sana in corpore sano—a healthy mind in a healthy body.

Of the many unseen impacts on health status, few affect every day life more than stress. Avoiding stress is impossible. Job pressures and insecurities, commuting problems, household chores, financial concerns, child and elderly parent care, managing the emotional impact of war and terrorism, and even weather extremes, are part of daily life. Major life events, such as moving, marriage or divorce, birth of a child, death of a loved one, physical injury, or chronic pain add to stress levels, some only intermittently, others constantly.

Although all individuals live with stress, some have more difficulty coping with stressors and thus experience greater stress than others. The young and elderly tend to be more susceptible to stress than those in other age groups are; genetics plays a role too. The lack of a solid social support network is also known to increase stress levels.

Acute stress is temporary and intense; the body deals with acute stress and returns to normal. A study published in the February, 2004 issue of Molecular Biology of the Cell, demonstrated in animal models that brief exposure to stress may actually help protect the body's cells against damage and promote longer life. Chronic stress, on the other hand, can overwhelm the body's natural defenses and increase health risks. Symptoms of chronic stress are both physical and behavioral. Irritability and impatience, sleep disturbances, nervous habits such as nail-biting, teeth grinding, decreased libido, and emotional labiality (poor control of emotions) are common signs of chronic stress.

Because of the intimate connection between mind and body, stress can produce physical signs: muscular tension, digestive problems such as heartburn and diarrhea, shallow breathing, migraines and tension headaches, and cold sweaty palms. Chronic stress is known to lead to high blood pressure, higher levels of cholesterol, abnormal heart beats, and increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

The very factors that create success for individuals can also create conditions of chronic stress. High achievers frequently identify their own self-worth in terms of professional productivity. As reported in Psychology Today, one study of top executives found that they disproportionately came from families with dysfunctional response patterns and high incidences of alcoholism. To be successful, this smart and creative group had learned to distance themselves from negative emotions; unacknowledged feelings can create stress and, eventually, depression and assorted physical ills.

Workplace stress research is beginning to document specific risks. Researchers found that workers experienced a 15 mmHg rise in systolic blood pressure and a 7mmHg increase in diastolic blood pressure on days that they worked for a boss they perceived as unfair. They also reported an increase of 10mmHg systolic and 5mmHg diastolic blood pressure is associated with a 16 percent higher risk of heart disease and a 38 percent higher risk of stroke (Occupational and Environmental Medicine, June 2003.) A study in the April 2003 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine showed that support from coworkers can decrease blood pressure during the most stressful times of the workday. The more people felt supported by coworkers, the smaller their blood pressure increases were in response to work-related stress. An article in the July 2003 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine assessed the fine points of personality and heart disease. In a study of nearly 2,400 men, those with the strongest Type A personalities developed heart disease sooner than those with less aggressive personalities. Those more likely to develop earlier heart disease were in a higher social class, smoked more than a pack of cigarettes daily, and had high blood cholesterol.

In addition to learning how to manage stress in life, it has been found that people who have a positive attitude and adapt to change, not only lead happier lives, but they live longer.

Managing stress is key to good health, and learning to manage stress is within every individual's power.

  • Try to identify those situations that cause stress.
  • Don't procrastinate. Handle the problems as they arise. They tend to become bigger with time.
  • Find time to relax in healthy ways on a regular basis, not just when stress mounts.
  • Build a support network at home, with friends, or in the office. Talking to others can not only reduce stress, but, at times, can produce solutions to problems.
  • Listen to your body. Developing vague symptoms can be clues of increasing stress and depression, as well as physical ailments.

Exercise is good for you physically and emotionally. As early as the 1970s, researchers showed that distraction from the stress of daily life through exercise caused beneficial declines in anxiety and depression. Prolonged rhythmic exercise has been shown to stimulate release of endorphins, natural mood-altering body chemicals believed to be responsible for the "runner's high."

Enjoy dining, choosing those items that will enhance health rather than adding pounds or inducing lethargy and fatigue. Be positive. Seek new interests and pleasures in daily activities.

About the Authors:

Suzanne L. Hawes, RN, EdD, served as Dean of the School of Health Professions and Nursing at William Paterson College in New Jersey. She also served as President of the Columbia University-Presbyterian Hospital School of Nursing Alumni Association and Vice President of Comprehensive Medical Interview. Dr. Hawes maintains a private psychoanalytic practice in New York City and serves a Director of EHE International’s Medical Board of Advisors.

Nancy Boccuzzi, RN, is a graduate of St. Luke's Hospital School of Nursing and also holds graduate degrees in education from Fairleigh Dickinson University and in public health from Columbia University. Her background is in clinical practice administration, health insurance and managed care, and related education, marketing and consulting activities. Ms. Boccuzzi served as Associate Dean at Columbia University School of Nursing and as Vice President of Clinical Affairs for EHE International.

The Mind-Body Connection and Staying Well is an EHE International publication and is reprinted and distributed with its expressed written permission. EHE International, 10 Rockefeller Plaza, 4th Floor, New York, New York 10020; 212.332.3738; Information@EHEINTL.com.

Since 1913, EHE has been the recognized leader in employee and individual Preventive Healthcare Plans (PHP) specifically designed for the early identification of preventable disease and risk factors; clinical management of health findings; referral resources; and personal coaching intervention programs of adverse lifestyle behaviors associated with poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and smoking. It’s nationally available PHP is a comprehensive, integrated approach to preventive healthcare for the reduction and management of future medical claims expense. For more information, contact EHE International.