Surprising as it may seem, the intimate connection between the mind and the body was not well understood until the closing decades of the last century. In the early 1970’s, for example, a scientific research paper published in Scientific American was one of the first studies to scientifically investigate this connection. That particular paper studied what happened in the body when the mind was in a meditative state. The paper found that as the mind settled down with a specific, effective practice of meditation, the body gained a profoundly deep state of rest. Respiration settled significantly. Stress hormones in the blood were reduced. Skin resistance increased (an indicator of increased physiological relaxation). The paper was a landmark work in the scientific recognition of the mind/body connection.
Also in the 1970’s we were all becoming familiar with the concept of stress. Stress had been with us for a long time of course, but through the work of scientists such as Hans Selye stress was becoming a defined process. Hans Selye, an endocrinologist, became widely recognized as an expert in the field of stress management. Selye defined stress as the body’s nonspecific response to a demand placed on it. For example, if we are home alone and a strange noise is heard in another room, our heart rate may increase and probably our blood pressure too, adrenaline shoots up and our senses become heightened. These physiological changes are the result of what scientists call the fight or flight response. Such ancient mechanisms in the human physiology are meant to prepare one to either ‘fight’ in a challenging situation (e.g. the tiger in the path before us) or to remove oneself from danger. While these mechanisms may be useful in a specific challenge, occurring in the physiology on a sustained basis they can create the basis for a myriad of health problems.
Understanding stress and the close connection between mind and body spawned another level of discovery about health and disease in terms of psychosomatic disorders. Psychosomatic disorders result from the influence that the mind has over physical processes. A psychosomatic disorder is one in which a physical disease is thought to be caused, or made worse, by mental factors. Such physical diseases—including skin disorders, cardiovascular problems, respiratory disorders, and disturbances of the nervous system including multiple sclerosis—can be particularly aggravated by mental factors such as stress and anxiety.
Women are particularly susceptible to stress. Their lives are challenged by special stressors. Women often care for others much more than they care for themselves. They may push themselves hard in the juggling of professional and personal lives. Stress in women is also often caused by the constant array of hormonal changes occurring in the female physiology. It is important for women to understand how to maintain balance: how to nurture the connection between mind and body, and to avoid the accumulation of stress that can break this vital connection. To prevent the onset of psychosomatic disorders and to avoid the deleterious effects of stress, women can only gain by fostering a healthy mind/body connection.