Anxiety is a BODY Disorder - Not a Psychological Disorder
Okay, so it’s simple. The structure of our health system is what actually separates the body from the brain/mind (the brain is the hardware, the mind is the software). The two are not actually separate. I am a strong advocate of referring to “mental health” as “health” and providing cross training in disciplines to make them work together more effectively. Why? Because they are part of the same system! Let’s discuss some examples to show the “whole” of it all.
What I refer to as the “BrainBody” is often termed the “mind-body.” The latter suggests a focus on cognition, or “software” of the brain. I prefer the former term because it addresses the actual physical link from which the mind operates (e.g. the brain). I see “BrainBody” as less stigmatic because it is an actual physical part of the body. An analysis of the research published in 2006 (Browner), concluded that “Mind-Body Research” is actually becoming more mainstream. We have talked about it in lay terms for years- such as the fact that stressing too much might actually make you sick. And in recent years, this has been empirically proven.
For example, in a 2006 study, workers in low-level jobs with high stress and little autonomy were found to have more than twice the risk of developing the precursor to heart disease and diabetes when compared to high-level employee jobs with less stress and more autonomy (Chandola et al, 2006). The low-level job workers were also found to die more prematurely. The stress of the job had an effect on stress hormones which affected the autonomic and neuroendocrine functioning (Chandola et al, 2006).
The University of Utah found that hardening of the arteries happens more often in female’s whose husbands expressed hostility during conflict and more common in husbands when their wives exhibit controlling behaviors (Smite et al, 2006). The examples could go on.
Despite the growing evidence base for BrainBody (mind-body) medicine and uses of this medicine dating back centuries, mainstream medicine treatment approaches often have a focus on biological treatments.
There is a network in your body, which connects your brain, neurological, endocrine, and immune systems. ALL of these systems are connected; including the “software” that runs your body. Essentially this “software” is what differentiates you from a dead person; truly the living aspect of you. Your mind, brain, body, immune system, respiratory system (and on and on) can be separated out but that DOES NOT make them separate processes because they all affect one another. We are one person, ONE BODY.
We don’t say things like, “oh, that guy has Asthma, that’s respiratory, so it does not really count as a problem since it’s not real.” Sound weird? Well it’s not much different than “Oh, that guy has bad anxiety, that’s psychological, so it does not really count as a problem since it’s not real.” The respiratory system affects your BODY as a whole just as cognitive (e.g. psychological aspects) affect and are a part of your BODY as a whole. (Anxiety – as used in this article – is meant to describe the pathological type, in that it causes distress or dysfunction in life. Not normal everyday anxiety, read more here).
Let’s tie this all together, how does this make anxiety a body problem? Well, for one, anxiety is actually the activation of your sympathetic nervous system causing you to feel uneasy, keyed up, and on edge. There are also several processes happening in your brain, often focused in the amygdala (the emotion center of your brain) which “creates” the feeling of anxiety. Psychological processes also may exacerbate symptoms; however, these processes are part of the system. Just as the examples given above have a psychological component causing a physical effect (e.g. hardening of the arteries, heart disease due to stress), the psychological component of anxiety is a part of the system. And this system is a SINGLE whole.
I am astonished at the progress we have made toward reducing the stigma against illness which has a large component which stems from the mind. Yet, we have a long road ahead of us. A step in the right direction is calling pathological anxiety (and other stigmatized disorders for the matter) for what it actually is; a problem of the body.
Brower, V. (2006). Mind–body research moves towards the mainstream. EMBO Reports, 7(4), 358–361.
Chandola T, Brunner E, Marmot M (2006) Chronic stress at work and the metabolic syndrome: prospective study. BMJ 332: 521–525
Smith TW, Berg C, Uchino BN, Florsheim P, Pearce G (2006) Marital conflict behavior and coronary artery calcification. Presentation at the 64th Annual Scientific Conference of the American Psychosomatic Society (Denver, CO, USA), 3 March