Human mind and body may look like separate entities, but they are not. In reality, they function as an interactive system.
It is not difficult for people to understand that physical illness and pain can affect their moods. While minor problems such as flu or gastroenteritis may only make patients feel down or suffer irritation for some period of time, patients who suffer chronic diseases, especially those that bring pain, may develop negative thoughts and sense of helplessness and end up becoming emotionally sick.
It is the same the other way around. If one is mentally disturbed, physical symptoms may well ensue. That is because emotions or stress can have direct impact on the body and lead to organic malfunctions, which in turn aggravate suffering of the mind. A vicious circle is thus created.
Some friends of mine have told me the reason they have been suffering from poor appetite or insomnia is they have long been bothered by anxiety or depression.
That is easy to understand. But beware that a person who has not slept or eaten well for a long time may not only become physically weaker with inferior immunity, he may also suffer depression that could lead him to ignore measures that can protect his health. And what’s worse, he may try to fight the low moods by resorting to drugs or alcohol, which could only make his health condition worse.
To understand how the mind can affect the body, one must know that many physical responses, including heartbeat, blood pressure and digestion, are controlled by the autonomic nervous system.
When we are under significant pressure from, say, a crisis, the sympathetic nerves of the system are activated and cause faster heartbeat and higher blood pressure, giving us more strength to cope with the crisis as the system boosts blood flow to the muscles and the brain.
But if the pressure does not go away and continues to stay, our body may end up not being able to handle it, which could lead to digestive or cardiovascular diseases.
Another thing that is worth mentioning is pressure can act as an interceptor, blocking messages sent from numerous sensors on the body to the brain.
For example, when a message is being sent to the brain to instruct the body to look for food, it may be “intercepted” by pressure as all physical systems focus only on the pressure and cause the message to fail to reach the brain.
In my opinion, the aforementioned things need to borne in mind by not only the general public but also by doctors who deal with patients with physical or mental diseases.
Good doctors must know that offering therapies or medications to patients is not enough. It is equally important to listen to the patients with empathy, teach them how to relax so as to ease the burden imposed on their bodies, and even refer them to for psychotherapy if necessary.
In other words, whether it is a physical or a mental disease, the best way for a doctor to treat the patient is to go after the body and the mind at the same time.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 30
Translation by Taka Liu
[Chinese version 中文版]
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