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What Is Your Mind Telling Your Body?

Updated: Jul 8, 2021

An Interview with Heather Sarit Fruedenthal

Looking back on this last year, I realized how quickly time goes by. About a year ago, I was convinced that I had avascular necrosis of both hips, lymphoma, bone cancer or needed bilateral total hip replacements. My path to hip health moved forward by being told by my amazing hip healing surgeon I did not need hip replacements! I would need revision hip scopes after having hip scopes ten years earlier with a different doctor. Anxiety. Tears. Fear. These eventually all turned into smiles, high fives and pride. I was proud not at just my physical recovery, but how I was able to maintain my mental stamina.

Don’t get me wrong – I had my share of meltdowns. Even most recently at being told that I needed a minimally invasive spine surgery. But you know what? I was able to talk myself down off that proverbial ledge many times. I am now 2 weeks post op from spine surgery and walking two miles at a time. In fact, my trainer, Jeremy, saw me the other day walking at the gym. He shook his head and said, “You are the most resilient person I know!” I smiled. Resilience is a trait that is hard to learn, but for me it centers on mindfulness and the ability to stay in the present and to not “futurize” (have freak out moments about the what ifs that can drive most crazy).

As I was doing research this past week, I came across some amazing artwork that reflects one person’s journey through her own health problems and anxieties. And you all must know that when you click on one link, you sometimes go on a treasure hunt for more information and inspiration. So, let me introduce to you Heather Sarit Freudenthal!

Heather is an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. Heather helps people in a holistic way by incorporating mindfulness into the support that she provides people. I can tell just from reading about her that she has a real caring for people, and she wants to share how mindfulness has helped her and can help you. She graciously agreed to let me interview her.

So, check out her insights and, hopefully, you can find a nugget or two to help you through your hip woes or really any other struggles you may be experiencing.

So, let’s talk to Heather!

How much does the mind-body connection play into overall health?

The mind-body connection is not simply a part of health - it is the foundation of our well-being. In Eastern and ancient medicine, the mind and body are not seen as two different entities, but rather, as parts of the same system. One does not exist without the other. However, in Western, more "modern" medicine, the mind and body have been referred to as separate parts, as if health and wellness fall into either one category or the other.

Any health concern requires addressing both the physical and emotional--anything from going to therapy, raising awareness, to viewing your ailment with a specific mindset. Just like there are many physical remedies for healing (diet, medicine, surgery), there are many ways the mind can be utilized to assist in the healing and recovery process, and many ways the mind can interfere with healing. For example, if you do not address your emotions or if you have a negative mindset, your body may have a more difficult time healing.

Why is it important for patients to understand that there is a mind-body connection when it comes to recovery from any health issue, but especially from surgery?

Patients must understand that the body literally does what the mind tells it to. Have you ever worried about something until it made you physically ill? It’s because cells respond to our thoughts, which is why meditation, visual imagery exercises, and positive mantras actually help us get where we want to be. It's called manifestation. It's not hocus pocus or witchcraft. Scientifically, thoughts create energy and outcomes. This explains the well-known placebo effect. Patients can actually feel better when they are told they are being given medicine or surgery, even if they haven't actually been given medicine or surgery. Similarly, sheer belief that you are healing is enough to create healing on a cellular level.

Mindfulness is especially important after surgery, when the body has suffered an injury. Unlike a cold or knee scrape, surgery affects multiple areas that need healing: skin, tissue, muscles, and of course, the emotional stress that comes with going under the knife (financial burdens, anxiety, feelings of inhibition). Mindfulness and attention to your emotions can provide the prime opportunity to give the body the best chance to recover faster!

Artwork by Heather Sarit Fruedanthal

How much does expectation of a successful outcome play into the actual outcome?

Expectation plays a huge role in successful outcomes. We talked about the placebo effect. There have been countless studies on this. While there are countless studies, and there’s no fixed percentage of its effect, one thing is constant: In every study, at least some (if not most) of the participants felt and got better, just from believing they were getting better, and expecting that they were getting treatment!

So it’s not surprising, negative outcomes can also be brought on by expectation. This is called the nocebo effect (the opposite of placebo). The nocebo effect is when a patient does not heal or feels worse because they believe they will not heal or that they will feel worse. In studies with patients who suffered from chronic back pain, the patients were injected with a saline solution, but told they were getting morphine, and many of these patients began to feel less pain because they thought they were getting a painkiller (placebo effect). Then, the same patients were told the doctors were going to stop their morphine. As a result, some patients felt their pain come back when they thought the morphine had been stopped (even though it hadn't been stopped). This is an example of the nocebo effect.

Artwork by Heather Sarit Fruedenthal

What types of different views are there on the mind-body connection? For example, if the mind-body connection is brought up, I think some may jump to conclusions that someone is telling them "your symptoms are all in your head".

Many people view the mind-body connection as spiritual. Some people infer that the connection itself is "all in their head." This is not the case. The mind-body connection is a tangible, real, and measurable connection. And it does not have to be complicated. It simply means that the mind and body are connected. Period. They influence each other. Many people feel more depressed when their stomach hurts, not just because it’s upsetting, but because our serotonin (the happiness hormone) is produced in the gut. If our stomach is imbalanced, our serotonin will be, too. Whether it's depression causing a stomachache, or a stomachache causing a bad mood, either way, they are connected. When we feel embarrassed, we blush. When we feel nervous, we sweat. These are prime examples of the mind-body connection. The fact is our minds play a huge role in our physical well-being, healing, or illness.

Wellness is a complicated process that requires all entities (mind and body) to be on board. It's an all-hands-on-deck situation.

What do you see as the most important character traits to cultivate to have a mind-body connection that can help improve outcomes? How?

The most important traits to cultivate a healthy mind-body connection are open-mindedness and awareness. If you believe the mind and body have nothing to do with each other, then you'll be battling disease, injury, and yourself. But if you understand that the two are inextricably linked, you will be able to notice the nuances in yourself (mind and body) and how they connect. Personally, I know that when I envision positive outcomes for myself (whether that is looking for a new job, meeting new people, or getting better), I manifest them and bring those things to my life. I know that if my stomach is bothering me, it will drastically affect my mood, so I make sure not to dwell too much during those times. I stay positive, and practice gratitude and patience, and this helps my stomach feel better faster.

You don't need to be a naturally positive person or a yogi. You just need to make space for all the factors at play in your health and healing.

Artwork by Heather Sarit Fruedenthal

How does a patient's stress response to physical or emotional stress impact recovery? How can a patient become more aware of their stress response and modulate it?

Stress is one of the most silent killers of our time. Stress is the underlying cause behind almost any ailment, big and small. Everything from skin breakouts, to IBS, to cancer. Our bodies were evolutionarily designed to take stress in quick doses. For example, if we saw a lion, our stress response would kick into high gear, causing our reproductive and digestive systems to slow down or even shut down. Basically it nulls everything that isn’t absolutely necessary to get us the hell out of there! Instead, all our adrenaline rises and blood rushes to our limbs so we can run as fast or fight as hard as we can! Hence, “fight or flight.”

However, now these same stress responses live in many of us chronically. The threat may not be a lion chasing us. It may be a looming deadline at work, a messy apartment that needs to be cleaned, or a babysitter that cancelled at the last minute. Or it could even be getting stuck in traffic. Our bodies don't react differently just because it's "not a lion." When under stress, our bodies respond with the same amount of heightened cortisol and adrenaline, as if it were a lion. And because we are under chronic (self-imposed) threat, it creates inflammation, high blood pressure, which sets a fertile ground for life threatening disease.

It's imperative that we become aware of this, and really learn to limit stress in our lives. That could mean eliminating stressful things, people and situations, or viewing these stressors differently. For example, I can’t always quit my job, but I now have a much higher tolerance for work stress because I know, it's not life or death. It's just work. Jobs will come and go. Bosses will expect unreasonable things from me. Sometimes it takes a life-threatening illness or tragedy to put this into perspective. I hope patients do not have to wait for something like this.

After we become aware of what really is and is not worth our worry and stress, it's so important to practice daily relaxation, so that the body becomes used to calmness. By doing this, we activate the "rest and digest" part of our nervous system (the parasympathetic nervous system), so that it operates more frequently than the "fight or flight" response. We can do this through exercise, meditation, mindfulness, rest, hobbies, quiet time (no phones!), nature, and so forth.

What is your definition of mind-body work?

Mind-body work is any practice or treatment which both addresses the mind and body, and gets at the root cause of a condition. For example, rubbing Icy-Hot on a sore back muscle for chronic back pain would not be considered mind-body treatment. Ideally discussion, inner listening and exploration are part of the healing process. Diet alone is not going to help a person heal if they are talking negatively to themselves the whole time. Additionally, any practitioner should be attentive to and supportive of their patients. The relationship between the patient and practitioner is equally as important as the treatment itself! It has to feel supportive and nurturing.

How do we teach people about this concept without them having a perception that it is weird, alternative or that they are a failure or weak?

It would help to engage in exercises where one can actually see for themselves how the mind affects the body. There are many practices and exercises that can highlight this connection in ways that can feel exciting. For example, practicing attentional flexibility when pain arises can help you notice how your pain actually decreases as you pay less and less attention to it. It's a great feeling once you realize your thoughts, mood and mindset show up tangibly in your body. It's amazing to watch biology change as your emotional circumstances change (many people get headaches or stomachaches when under emotional stress). The first time I saw how my thoughts directly affected physiological changes in my body, I remember thinking, "I will never let myself have a negative thought again!" So, even when you feel physically uncomfortable, it’s still a powerful experience to have. Because you prove to yourself that, not only are your mind and body connected, but you have much more control in how you feel.

Does the medical community, generally speaking, embrace the mind-body connection?

Functional medicine doctors are all about the mind-body connection, and many other doctors are aware of it and embrace it. But due to the medical model in Western culture and the fast-paced assembly line of treatment, unfortunately many diseases and injuries are prescribed physical-only treatments: surgeries, pills, etc. This is merely a band-aid, a quick fix, but will not get to the root of why the disease existed in the first place, and the ailment is likely to come back, or show up in a different part of the body.

As time goes on, and more and more patients become fed up with this model, the medical community will have to follow suit, and more doctors will get on board and treat injury and illness holistically.

Are there any services that you provide from a distance?

I offer one-on-one health coaching sessions, and do them over Skype, google chat and phone. Many clients prefer the convenience of working entirely online, from the privacy of their own homes. I also offer wellness writing in the form of blogs, articles, educational and marketing materials and newsletters.

So from this Hopeful Hippie, “Thank you, Heather!” for sharing.

For you hippies, please remember that, “the greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another” (William James). Try to challenge yourself this next week to find a new tool or strategy to stay in the moment of positivity – whether it be journaling, drawing, breathing in and breathing out or listening to your favorite relaxing music. Find it and embrace it!

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