mind-body connection

The Mind-Body Connection: How Stress Escapes Our Brains and Wreaks Havoc

Originally published on March 31, 2022

Exploring the Mind-Body Connection

I’ve got to admit: I find it funny that, in a society that’s more stressed out and diseased than ever before, we still have folks who question the existence of a mind-body connection. These critics will argue that thoughts are just random things in our brains or that our minds and bodies exist in duality with one another.

To these naysayers, I just have to ask: how do you explain, then, the quick, intense anatomical changes you experience when you think about, say, a desirable, intimate encounter with a partner or potential mate? Surely there’s got to be something going on there, linking the mental and the physical, no?

Or how about when our calendars are packed to the brim, and we feel stress all over? I could ask the same thing of frustratingly sitting in traffic ahead of an important business meeting or losing one’s appetite before a worry-induced, make-or-break scenario on the horizon — there’s just no escaping the link between what we think or perceive and how we feel inside.

Though I’ve known of and believed in this connection for a long time (I mean, how can I not, given my experiences in the mental health space?), last winter, I had an episode that made me come to realize just how powerful and pervasive it is. And it’s that episode I want to share with you in this post.

The Mind-Body Connection is So Strong It’s … Shocking

It was February of 2021, and a few friends and I were riding out the latest COVID wave in an Airbnb in South Florida. For the most part, it’d been a very fun and unique opportunity that allowed us to take our minds off the pandemic, focus on work or personal projects, and relax after a year of virus-related worries.

A few weeks into our time down there, however, some stressors started to pile up in my life that knocked me off-kilter a bit. No, it wasn’t anything too crazy or unfortunate — just your everyday annoyances: more work than I could manage in my full-time job, too many deadlines and assignments on the writing front, a few COVID scares amongst friends and family members, and a couple of interpersonal conflicts within our Airbnb crew.

I can’t quite remember the first sign of it, but as these stressors began to mount, I felt something that I can really only compare to hyperactivity or eustress — a form of primarily advantageous strain that kicks us into higher gears of productivity.

Yet, while that energy started out as a (mostly) beneficial thing, the situation, in general, quickly got more concerning from there. As I stared down everything I had to do in the coming days and weeks, the strain I was experiencing multiplied. Soon, that sensation of hyperactivity went into total overdrive, making me feel as if I’d been chugging caffeine around the clock.

Now, I love a good cup of coffee once in a while, but this was way too much. Worse yet, I couldn’t find a way to rid myself of this energy because I associated it with my massive to-do list and still hadn’t made much of a dent in that creation.

A few days later, those caffeinated emotions got in the way of me sleeping more than a few hours a night. Next, they precipitated one of the scarier physical symptoms / conditions I’ve ever encountered: intense, shooting pains emanating from my heart, which I can really only equate to the feeling of being electrocuted for one or two seconds at a time.

I’d endured a handful of these “shocks” throughout other stressful periods of my life, but this was scarier and more intense than those previous instances; the pains kept coming once an hour for nearly a month, leaving me on high alert all the time.

Not knowing when they’d end, I stewed on dark thoughts about my health. After all, I had no idea what this condition was, so it was hard for me to silence fears of potentially suffering a heart attack or stroke as a result of it.

In short order, that dread and fear produced further stress and tension in my body, which — you guessed it — led to even more of these “shocks.” And while I was still grateful to be in a tropical paradise with my friends, neither the sun nor the palm trees proved enough to distract me from whatever the heck was going on inside my body.

After another four or five days, I told myself I couldn’t stop living in fear. So, I did the only thing that made sense: I called my doctor and explained what was happening. To my relief, he said that, given the sporadic nature of the pains, what I was dealing with likely wasn’t a serious or life-threatening condition. However, if I wanted to be totally sure, I could wear a heart monitor for a couple of weeks. So, that’s what I did.

In the end, the monitor’s results came back mostly fine: I had rare atrial ectopy, a relatively benign and temporary condition brought on by all the fear and stress in my mind. Thankfully, once those forces dissipated long enough, my heart would stop broadcasting its painful, electric shocks.

After reading those relieving results, it really hit me: the brain and body are so intimately linked that it’s almost impossible to consider one without thinking about the other. And while I’m sure it will sound a bit corny, in the end, I’m glad I went through that episode because it made me understand myself and my mind a bit more.

If not for that unsettling experience, I likely would’ve continued to face these shocks throughout my life and not done anything about them. Yet, because the incident was so painful and prolonged, I had little choice but to call my doctor and figure out what was going on. And, in hindsight, that was a bit of a blessing in disguise.

Why? Because now that the entire ordeal is behind me, I know the official diagnosis and understand that it’s not something to worry about too much. And that gives me two critical tools for moving forward.

First, it provides me the poise and ability to face such pains in the future and say, “I’m going to be okay; these shocks will pass if I just keep getting myself into a relaxed state.” And second, it helps me be more aware of stress and how it’s affecting me on a mental and physical level.

Today, when I feel tension building on the left side of my chest, I know what I need to do: re-evaluate my priorities in life, drop what’s not important, and seek tranquility. And that’s not only a great game plan for rare atrial ectopy — it’s also an invaluable strategy for navigating just about all somatic stress in the future.

So, with that story behind us, I now invite you to do some digging and thinking of your own. Ask yourself, “When I’m worried or anxious, where do I feel it in my body, and to what degree?” Then, consider what stress-reduction techniques are most effective for you and get them ready for the next time you feel that strain coming on.

Though it’s certainly not the most complicated strategy out there, it’s still one that leverages the often-overlooked mind-body connection and gives us another leg up against stress and fear. And that’s why I hope you’ll consider adding it to your anxiety toolkit.

Thanks for Reading. Here Are Some Other Things You Might Enjoy:

My First Book, On Living with / Overcoming Anxiety

A Blog Post about Fighting Despair through Recognizing Psychological Patterns

An Article on What It Really Means to “Face Your Fear”

**Above image designed and owned by Brian Sachetta ©2022

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