The body and mind are intimately intertwined. We must always look at the bigger picture. Despite Western medicine’s attempt to further break the body up into distinct “parts,” everything is connected. Your stress at work and your shoulder pain are absolutely related. Your toxic relationship and your sinus infection is likely the result of your body’s symbiosis. Emotional stress manifests itself physically, and, conversely, physical pain impacts our emotions.
Everything is originated in your brain. The brain is responsible for the function of all bodily functions (heart beat, digestion, respiration, etc.), and it also controls your perception. Thus, it would be foolish to consider pain without first understanding the cognitive processes behind it.
- Research suggests that thinking about contracting a specific muscle is beneficial for improving muscular hypertrophy. A study of 18 resistance-trained men found that "individuals can increase triceps brachii or pectarilis major muscle activity during the bench press when focusing on using the specific muscle at intensities up to 60 % of 1RM." Essentially, thinking about activating a muscle can increase its activation at lower intensities.
- A history of injury to a certain area can perpetuate symptoms, even after your body has healed. Pain and trauma form pathways in your brain. There's an adage that says "neurons that fire together wire together." This means that if a pathway of pain becomes familiar to you, it can be difficult to dissociate the two things. Let's say you tore your UCL in your elbow throwing a baseball. You may still experience pain when throwing, even long after the tissue has healed, because your brain associates throwing with danger.
- You can improve on a skill using mental imagery. "Vandell et. al. reported that groups of subjects who mentally practiced basketball free throws or dart throwing demonstrated improved skills similar to those who physically practiced the task. The [mental practice] and [physical practice] groups improved 23% and 24%, respectively, as compared with no improvement in a control group that did not practice either task," mentioned Warner and McNeill. That means that the group who practiced a skill using mental imagery alone had nearly the same level of improvements as did the group using physical practice!
- Mental practice can improve balance. Fansler et. al. tested 36 elderly female subjects. Women were randomly assigned to one of three groups: non-sense+physical practice, relaxation+physical practice, or ideokinetic facilitation+physical practice. The final group "showed fewer subjects with negative change and more subjects with greater than 100% improvement." Effectively, the combination of mind-body awareness along with physical practice elicited significant improvements for the subjects. "This improvement in balance, which is a fundamental component of human movement, suggests that [ideokinetic facilitation] has promising usefulness in health care." Perhaps this study could be expanded into other areas, as well!
Wim Hof, a dutch man known as the "Ice Man" has been able to achieve incredible feats using meditative breathing. He regularly goes for dunks in freezing cold water, hikes frigid mountains in only his shorts, and has even demonstrated control over his autonomic nervous system. If you haven't heard of this guy, I recommend watching this video and reading more about him! He's a pretty incredible and inspiring man.
There's still much research to be done on the concept of mind-body connectivity. I believe that with a strong mind, we can build a strong body. We cannot achieve what the mind doesn't believe. Incorporating mental imagery into your routine might just be the change you need to break through your training plateaus!
- Calatayud, Joaquin, Jonas Vinstrup, Markus Due Jakobsen, Emil Sundstrup, Mikkel Brandt, Kenneth Jay, Juan Carlos Colado, and Lars Louis Andersen. "Importance of Mind-muscle Connection during Progressive Resistance Training." European Journal of Applied Physiology 116.3 (2015): 527-33. Web.
- Haggard, Patrick. "Conscious Intention and Motor Cognition." Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9.6 (2005): 290-95. Web.
- Ramachandran, V. S., and Sandra Blakeslee. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009. Print.
- Sarno, John E. Mind over Back Pain: A Radically New Approach to the Diagnosis and Treatment of Back Pain. New York: Berkley, 1999. Print.
- Warner, Linda, and M. Evelyn Mcneill. "Mental Imagery and Its Potential for Physical Therapy." Physical Therapy 68.4 (1988): 516-21. Web.