Psychoneuroimmunology, Mind-Body Psychology and the Fight or Flight Response

As the mind-body connection is discussed more often in health care, it is a common error to believe the study of the mind-body connection is fairly new. Would you be surprised to know that this field of study began in the early 20th century? Even that is not quite true. The mind-body connection was proposed by the Greek philosopher Galen in the 2nd century, but Walter Cannon, a professor of physiology at Harvard during the 20th century, initiated interest in the connection between the emotions and physiology in his work with animals and digestion. He found that animals under emotional stress such as anger, fear and anxiety resulted in the stomach totally shutting down its digestive functions.

Dr. Cannon’s most influential research paper in this area, Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage, was published in 1915. In this paper he discusses the physiological results of the fight or flight response. In the past almost 100 years, we have now learned that, not only does digestion shut down when fight or flight is activated, all non-essential physiological activities quit.

The fight or flight response has one purpose and one purpose only… to keep you alive. Whether you fight with all your strength to stay alive, or choose to run as fast as you can to get out of danger, your body mobilizes all its resources to help you do this. After all, you staying alive is of major interest to it. What the body does is shut down every non-essential activity and redirects everything to what your body needs to stay alive. You don’t need digestion or sexual desire to fight for your life. You do need more blood to your limbs. While your heart rate and blood pressure increases so that blood is moved to supply energy to your arms and legs, your body quits digesting food.

This is great for the short-term. The problem is that our society has so much stress that the fight or flight response is active a large part of daily life. The body gets stuck in fight or flight. Digestion doesn’t reactivate, so you have indigestion, and your blood pressure doesn’t go down, so your doctor wants you to have meds to lower your blood pressure.

Psychoneurimmunology is all about the physiological result of emotions. Mind-body psychology is about teaching people strategies to bring the body back to its normal way of functioning. Mind-body psychology teaches various stress busting strategies including managing your thoughts and emotions as well as meditation. Today these strategies are frequently discussed as research continues in this field.