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Hilal Her

Linkages between Physical and Mental Health

April 2022

The link between mind and body has received acknowledgment in science as well as wisdom passed down to generations in various cultures around the world. In recent years, the specialization in science counterintuitively segmented the picture of a human being from being one whole connected unit into mind and body as separate elements. Though mind and body each serve diverse functions, yet converge in their natural purpose to create and sustain harmony and balance inside and outside the human they serve. How efficiently these elements perform, translates into the mental and physical health of each person. Mind and body support each other to optimally perform their functions, and integration between them fulfills our basic need to adapt. Broadly speaking, our body creates experiences and our mind comprehends those experiences, whereby each person is able to give life events their own meaning. This is where the human’s higher intellect and consciousness as compared to other species comes in. The meanings we create based on the mind-body connection, help us develop intention. With intention, we exercise our will to act or not act a certain way, to adopt healthy habits, to regulate our emotions, and follow ambition and higher goals for growth to develop a progressive mindset. Without intention (that is, integration of mind-body connection), we are not much different from other social animals with lower intellect. Intention becomes stronger each time we exercise it. Once we develop the intention muscle in our mind, we can lead our body to engage in healthier endeavours. However, it is not simple to nurture intention.  
To understand the connection between mental and physical health, one must understand the cultural context they exist in. The biopsychosocial (BPS) model is a widely used scientific lens to understand humans and their health states. It highlights that a person’s biological, psychological and socio-environmental factors are interdependent. Changes in society are likely connected with changes within the person as well; however, these are not always readily apparent. Now, let us try to apply the BPS lens to understand the mental and physical health connection of a person in Pakistan in light of the research findings. Pakistan upholds a collectivist culture and its social norms aim towards more safety to social motives as opposed to individual motives. This collective culture is reflected not only in the national and institutional policies, but also in community level policies. Recent research conducted by Global Psychiatry Journal reveals that majority of the people in Pakistan are not equipped with even words to express their range of emotional states and mental health concerns. Another study conducted by Dr Tahir Khalily, a senior clinical psychologist, shows the lack of dedicated institutional care available to address the mental health concerns present in the South Asian region. Individuals here are more mindful of their physical health ailments and much less of their mental state. This gives the picture that our culture is only recently recognizing mental health as a concern worth addressing, now that it is becoming a social concern as well. 
The BPS model shows that if social structures prefer physical healthcare more than the mental healthcare of a person, then the person also learns to care for their body more and neglect their mind. This weakens the mind-body link, causing fundamental health imbalances. This mistake overlooks the fact that if both exist in our nature as beings, then both require their own kind of care. This imbalance of care is not only a concern for collectivist cultures, rather it is now a recognized global crisis. World Health Organization (WHO) has identified depression as one of the leading causes of deaths worldwide with an increase in the global prevalence of depression and anxiety by 25% since the COVID-19 pandemic. It is alarming that individuals with mental illness die prematurely (even 20-year-olds) because their mental illness impacts their physical health much severely when it is left unattended and uncared for. This highlights how each individual’s mental health adds up to make a drastic global impact. One person as a unit of the larger community is deserving of as much care, if not more, as the larger social unit. 

All naturally existing elements are present in multitudes. Water exists in different forms of flowing rivers, glaciers, and hot springs. Seasons change and so do their fruits. Different crops can be grown around the year. While keeping these few examples in view, question arises that how can the natural state of humans, an intelligently adaptive species, be limited to one (physical) or the other (mental)? In any given moment, we exist in both our mind and body. To maintain good health in a human being, attention and care is required for both these elements and disconnection between them leads to health imbalances experienced by both essential elements. The stronger this link, the stronger will be our ability to practice our intention. Intention is the essence of action. In many cultures it is commonly understood to be spiritually guided as well, yet another element of human presence.
Following are practical evidence-based mindful meditation exercises, which help strengthen the mind and body link, nurture intention, and enhance overall wellbeing in a person. Since they lead to the same beneficial end, one may choose the means they engage with better. They combine mental attention and body movement and this creates neural linkages, which significantly help improve the autoimmunity, the quality of life, lifespan, reverses the unhealthy response to stressful life events and replaces them with healthy ones, compared to those who do not engage in these exercises.

Mindful Breathing
Gently guide your attention towards your breath. Your attention is a vast resource and it can hold many things at the same time. This exercise is a practice to bring the attention back to focus on only your breath, each time it drifts. Focus on the sensations at each inhale and exhale. Curiously notice the rate of your breath, its depth and the rhythm it creates in your body movement. Notice if paying attention to your breath changes the way you breathe. When you are ready, gently guide your attention back to your surroundings. 
Mindful Sensing
This involves bringing curious attention towards each of your five senses, so the mental input is balanced with sensory input. Name five things you see, four things you touch and name the texture, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste in the present moment. All of these may not be apparent at first. Be sure to take your time and curiously explore the environment you are present in through your senses.    
These exercises may be practiced from 5-30 minutes a day. They seem deceptively simple, however, the secret for best effect is to keep your practice consistent. A practical way to do so is to include it in your daily lifestyle and routine by pairing it with another activity you consistently engage in such as praying, reading, cooking, etc. Understanding our own connections deeply helps us to access our innate wisdom, which heals us. When we heal ourselves, we heal that much of the world as well. So, which exercise will you try this week to develop neural linkages and coherence in your mental and physical health? HH

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