How Spiritual Care Affects Mind and Body

I try to pay attention to issues related to digestion. Crohn's Disease is a part of my family's health history, so when I feel a bit of discomfort I worry that it might be the cause and sometimes let my imagination get away with itself. Fortunately, I had a checkup just last year and all looks pretty good.

But in consultation with my primary care doctor that included some deductive reasoning, I've found that stress can lead to intestinal discomfort. Knowing this about myself has helped me address it in helpful ways.

Rather than continue to share some of my health issues with you, let's move on to talk about this stuff in a more general way.

You see, I am not unique. The causes of problems such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome have been linked to experiencing high levels of stress. The more anxious you are, the higher probability that your body will have physical symptoms.

According to Science Mike on a recent podcast of The Liturgists, this is because we have a high collection of nerve endings in our stomach and digestive tract. When our brain is on high alert, it sends messages to our gut that cause it to react in unpleasant ways, which is why when we're nervous we get upset stomach or have to rush to the bathroom to purge out one way or the other.

The possible gross-out factor of this post hasn't improved. Let me try one more time.

An article from the Institute for the Psychology of Eating (did you know there was such a thing?) observes that there's a correlation between the speed at which we eat and how well our bodies digest and absorb food. Author Emily Rosen writes:
During survival situations, evolution has figured out a way to re-route all of our metabolic energy away from the midsection and direct it to arms legs and head for quick fighting, fleeing and instinctive thinking. You don’t need to be digesting your jellybeans when you’re fighting for your life. It’s a total waste of metabolic energy. Conversely, the beauty here is that when we’re nice and relaxed, the parasympathetic nervous system literally switches on full, healthy, and empowered digestive and assimilative function.
So the point is this – if you’re eating under stress, your digestive capacity is weakened. Blood flow to the gut can be four times less, enzymatic output in the gut can be 20,000 fold less, activity across the intestinal villi is decreased, and nutrient excretion is accelerated.
In other words, when we're rushing through a meal in between meetings or between getting home from work and hurrying the kids out the door to evening activities, our brains send messages to our bodies to route most of our energy and attention to places other than our digestive functions. Conversely, eating in a slower, more relaxed state of mind will cause our stomachs to relax and do its job more thoroughly.

All of this is to say that the way our mind processes our immediate surroundings and responds to stimuli affects our physical health. When the mind is stressed, the body is stressed.

Most prayer practices call for a time of calming both mind and body in order to properly set the tone for both to go through the exercise. They begin with sitting comfortably in quiet spaces, usually with a time of deep breathing. Why do such practices encourage this? Because to most fully experience these times of spiritual centering, we must first ensure that our mental and physical selves are relaxed enough to receive what the practice is meant to share.

Conversely, when we end such periods of prayer, many practitioners report feeling more at peace, both inwardly and outwardly. They return to their lives a little calmer than before, and a regular discipline that sets aside time for these exercises has the potential to form new habits of relating to oneself.

This leads to the reduction of stress in the mind, which in turn lessens stress on the body.

In other words, the physical, mental, and spiritual are all connected. As tempted as we might be to separate these into different boxes--physical care over here, then mental health over there, and maybe spiritual attentiveness if we find time--the whole of our selves suffers. One inevitably affects the others in positive or negative ways.

How are you caring for your mind, body, and spirit? How are you striving for a holistic approach to self-care?

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