“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.”
So says Dr. James Gordon, founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, an organization committed to healing population-wide trauma through holistic mind-body interventions. But you don’t have to just take his word for it: in a groundbreaking new study from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, researchers discovered a literal linkage between the mind and body embedded in the brain, proffering first-of-its-kind scientific evidence of the long-believed-in connection.
As a matter of fact, contrary to what some may think, the concept of the mind-body connection dates all the way back to ancient civilizations like Egypt, Greece, and China. These early societies lived according to the principle that one’s mental state could influence their physical state, and vice versa. In ancient India, philosophers developed practices aimed at achieving harmony between these two states, known as yoga; in ancient China, the philosophy of Taoism gave way to the development of various mind-body practices, including Tai Chi and Qigong.
It wasn’t until much later, during the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, when dualism—promoted most notably by French philosopher René Descartes—took hold in the Western world, leading to a long period in which the mind and body were thought to be distinct, and thus were treated separately. Only in the past several decades has there been such a mainstream resurgence of interest in this integrative or holistic approach to health, thanks in large part to scientific breakthroughs like UW’s.
And it’s because of this resurgence that employers are increasingly investing in whole-health approaches to employee wellbeing, recognizing an even greater interest—or rather, need—among their staff for both physical and mental health benefits—but even more importantly, recognizing that whatever plagues employees’ minds, will inevitably plague their bodies…and that whatever wreaks havoc on their bodies, will do the same inside their minds…
Mind-Body Connection 101
Monica is a senior financial analyst working from home. Her job is hard, but she loves it. Still, she knows the risks that come with the long, stressful hours she always winds up putting in week after week, and moreover knows about the risks that come with sitting for most of the day. To combat these stressors, she makes sure that her days start and end with a brisk walk around her neighborhood. She watches what she eats. She spends quality time with her friends and family. She gives herself a quiet moment each day to journal, to meditate, to stretch, or just to think.
The result: she feels good—an all-encompassing type of “good.” Her mind is fresh; her energy levels are stable; she feels agile and fit—no aches or pains, no fatigue. According to her and everyone else she knows, she’s the happiest and healthiest person around.
But when she goes for her annual physical, the doctor informs her that she has high blood pressure and will have to monitor it at home for the time being. That’s odd, she thinks to herself. I’m doing all the right things. Still, following doctor’s orders, she picks up a monitor on her way home, and checks her BP every day for the next two weeks.
Interestingly enough, when she self-monitors at home, her blood pressure reads completely normal. After two weeks go by without any change, she calls up her doctor to inquire about the dilemma. He asks her if she suffers from anxiety; she answers back, “no.” He asks her if visiting the doctor’s office makes her anxious. “Very much,” she admits, explaining that she likely has medical trauma due to the loss of a family member that was caused by a misdiagnosis. “Well, there you have it,” he answers back. “If you’ re taking care of yourself at home, and don’t have any family history of high blood pressure or any related conditions…your reading was likely higher in my office simply because you were anxious. We call that ‘white coat syndrome.'”
Here you have a perfect example of the mind-body connection in action. Because the body’s stress response is programmed to respond to real or perceived threats, the anxiety that Monica experiences upon entering the doctor’s office eventually—through a short chain of command—leads to the release of cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” as well as adrenaline, which subsequently activate the sympathetic nervous system—or the “fight or flight system.”
From there, stress hormones—in conjunction with the sympathetic nervous system—lead to an increase in heart rate, intended to pump more blood and oxygen to the brain and muscles in order to either flee or fight. At the same time, the combination of cortisol and adrenaline also results in the constriction of blood vessels, intended to redirect blood flow away from less essential functions, so that, again, more blood goes to the vital organs and muscles needed for immediate action.
The result: blood is then pumped at a faster rate throughout the circulatory system, creating a spike in blood pressure. As Monica’s anxiety dissipates, so, too, does her high blood pressure reading. Likewise, the next time her anxiety spikes, so will her blood pressure.
This is just but one example of the interrelationship between the mind and body, however, out of a long list of anecdotes that are simply too numerous to mention. Still, it stands to reason to say that for every mental affliction, trust that there is a physical counterpart…and vice versa.
Mind-Body Connection in the Workplace
That being said, when it comes to recognizing the mind-body connection’s influence in the workplace, there are certain physical, mental, or lifestyle trends to be cautious of. Some of these include:
- Chronic stress
- Anxiety or panic; phobias
- Depression or persistent sadness
- Burnout; emotional exhaustion
- Mood swings
- Intrusive thoughts
- Eating disorders
- Occupational injuries (e.g., strain injuries, accidents)
- Poor posture
- Weight gain; obesity
- Physical fatigue; exhaustion
- Illness and viruses
- Heart disease
- Respiratory disease
- Musculoskeletal pain
- Lack of exercise
- Poor ergonomics
- Poor nutrition
- Smoking; drinking
- Inadequate sleep or rest
- Sedentary behaviors
- Excessive screen time; eye strain
Each of these conditions causes or exacerbates the others, creating a never-ending cycle of poor health and wellbeing that simply cannot be effectively treated with siloed, symptom reduction strategies alone.
Benefits of a United Mind-Body Approach to Health
Because really, at the end of the day, symptom reduction can only go so far when it comes to promoting strong overall health and wellbeing for the long-term. Treating a symptom doesn’t always treat the influencing factors; treating a symptom doesn’t teach the individual how to prevent not only the symptom at hand nor any other markers of poor health. Symptom reduction strategies will only beget the need for more down the road.
But by implementing mind-body, body-mind interventions in the workplace, employers can teach their employees the value and importance of taking consistent, simultaneous care of every aspect of their health and wellbeing, which not only entails paying attention to and maintaining one’s health even in the absence of symptoms, but also, promotes self-ownership of one’s health and wellbeing, instead of relying solely on professional care.
When employees are empowered to strike a balance between self-care and professional intervention and are met with proactive approaches to their health as opposed to reactive ones, they enhance their resilience against life’s stressors, and reap the added benefits that come along with doing so, which can include gains in their level of:
- Trust and optimism
- Emotional intelligence and self-regulation
- Acceptance and self-compassion
- Self-efficacy and self-esteem
- Vulnerability and openness
- Mindfulness and self-reflection
- Adaptability and perseverance
Which then, of course, translate to gains in the workplace as well, including:
- Sustained engagement
- Increased productivity
- Improved concentration; fewer mistakes
- Deeper connections within and across teams (improved morale)
- Reduced risk or prevalence of depression and anxiety
- Reductions in stress
- Reductions in absenteeism and presenteeism
- Improved retention
- Lowered healthcare spending
Regarding that last point, researchers maintain that mind-body interventions can help to significantly cut costs not just because of their inherent effectiveness, but also because of their malleability. As most employers know, there can never be no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to employee wellbeing: every individual worker comes with their own unique needs and their own personal preferences for how to meet those needs. Trying to cater to every single one of their employees’ needs oftentimes only results in higher spending for low utilization and temporary improvements at best, no long-term changes at worst.
But by implementing common mind-body interventions, which include yoga or meditation classes, breathing exercises, mindfulness-based stress reduction programs, and more, employees can tailor their own experience so that it accurately and effectively addresses their own needs.
Take yoga, for instance. Not only are there different disciplines (niyamas) and postures (asanas) for individuals to incorporate into their own practice, but there are also a myriad of different benefits and insights that they can get out of the experience as well, including characteristics like:
- Mental strength
- Internal peace
- Love for oneself and for others
As well as the ability to:
- Stay present
- Let go of negative thoughts and emotions
- Make good decisions
- Manage stress
- Maintain good posture and body alignment
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule
- Empathize and relate with others
- Listen to and interpret bodily signals
Therefore, by investing in holistic, mind-body interventions, employers subsequently succeed in providing their workers with more accessible, customizable, and collaborative care solutions—creating a positive and healthy work environment, and, by extension, a happier and healthier workforce.
Implementing a Mind-Body Approach to Health in the Workplace
That said, when it comes to implementing mind-body interventions in the workplace, there are an unlimited number of strategies—or an unlimited number of combinations—for employers to choose from, just so long as their outcome promotes (i) proactive health management; (ii) the dual role of personal efforts and professional intervention; (iii) the interconnectedness of the mind and body; and (iv) the power of self-awareness, connection, regulation, and intervention in healing one’s mental and physical health.
- Mindfulness Sessions and Activities: This includes anything from more informal interventions like guided stretches, meditation, mindful movement, or breathwork during breaks, to more organized interventions like monthly yoga classes; whatever promotes mental clarity and physical agility. As experts from the Mental Health Foundation contend: “Physical activity has a huge potential to enhance our wellbeing. Even a short burst of 10 minutes of brisk walking increases our mental alertness, energy, and positive mood.”
- Wellbeing Programs: While many employers wrongfully assume that all that wellbeing programs have to offer is counseling support, the truth is that such programs offer a range of services that cater to employees’ holistic and individualized needs—making them a great if not vital resource to invest in to promote mind-body wellness at work. At a glimpse, these services include (but are not limited to):
- Mindfulness programs
- In-the-moment counseling support
- Self-paced cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Life coaching
- Financial and legal assistance
- Wellness coaching
- Stress management
- Tobacco cessation
- Weight management
- Biometric health screenings
- Wellness Stipends: Just as wellbeing programs can assist in developing meal and fitness plans, so can wellness stipends be used to encourage—or better yet, incentivize—employees to adhere to these plans. Common stipends that can be used toward promoting one’s mind-body connection include:
- Gym memberships
- Fee reimbursements for fitness or cooking classes
- Subscriptions for meditation apps
- Meal kits or food deliveries
- Complementary spa visits, massages, or retreats
- Allowances for screenings, check-ups, vaccinations, and other appointments
- Ambassador Programs: Another effective solution for promoting the mind-body connection in the workplace is cultivating wellbeing ambassadors or mentors that can help to communicate key wellness messages; organize and lead mind-body activities in the workplace; educate employees on healthy lifestyle choices; and guide peers as they start their own healing journey. They are also another effective tool when it comes to restoring employees’ agency and ownership over their health and wellbeing. Serving as a liaison between employees and those in charge of creating and executing their organization’s wellness strategy, ambassadors can hear directly from the workers themselves what specific health needs they need assistance with the most, and how they feel about current programs and offerings, which can then be voiced to leadership to guide their decision-making.
At the end of the day, people—the workers themselves—are an organization’s best and most precious asset. Therefore, they need them to be healthy—more than healthy, they need them to feel whole, to feel sure of and connected with themselves, in order to connect fully with others and work together as a team to achieve common goals. To ensure that one’s workforce is healthy and well-supported requires more—a lot more—than traditional health coverage. They need something that’s flexible; something that speaks to them and can be shaped and sculpted by them. They need something that can speak to and fulfill not just their mental or physical needs, but their emotional, social, spiritual, nutritional, holistic needs. And to that end, interventions that recognize and uphold the mind-body connection are the best—and most cost-effective—way to go.