The Mind and Body Connection

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Soldiers in training from Foxtrot Company, 2-13th Infantry Regiment, prepare to run the "Fit to Win" obstacle course while going through Army basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C.
Soldiers in training from Foxtrot Company, 2-13th Infantry Regiment, prepare to run the "Fit to Win" obstacle course while going through Army basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. (Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Lock/U.S. Air Force photo)

There is very little doubt that our mind and body are connected. The superhighway of nerves and a variety of hormones in the endocrine system can affect us positively and negatively.

The mind can affect the body with anxiety and obtrusive thoughts, for example, and the body can affect the mind as “fatigue makes cowards of us all” (Vince Lombardi). This road goes in both directions. What we eat and drink, how we exercise and even our posture can impact our mental state. What we think and experience (real or imagined) can have physiological effects on our body as well. The mind and body connection is a complex relationship, to say the least.

Knowing there are ways to push through mental and physical barriers can be the difference between success and failure (or striving for a goal). For instance, one thing many Navy SEALs learn during Hell Week (after successful completion) is that the body is 10 times stronger than the mind lets it be. There is a point in all special operators that you have to disengage the mind and just keep moving, even though you're thoroughly exhausted. The definition of mental toughness is when you learn how to find fuel in a tank that you thought was empty.

Our brain’s main mission is to keep the body alive. The brain is a powerful organ that allows us to react in a split second to perform a life-saving task and practiced skill, as well as intuitively respond to a dangerous situation that allows our body to stay alive.

Every goal is first and foremost a mental challenge. Once the goal pushes your physical limits, the mind starts protecting the body in many ways, usually by interjecting intrusive thoughts to get you to quit doing uncomfortable things to your mind and/or body. For instance, whether it is cramming for a big exam or hours of physical training in uncomfortable conditions, the mind can create thoughts to help you save yourself. “Quit doing these painful activities and go to sleep, get warm, comfortable and stop stressing yourself.” This is the brain’s job -- keep us safe and alive.

If positively trained and physically and mentally prepared, the brain can be an unstoppable force that is instrumental to your success. Our brain is a masterful organ in charge of everything, but it can be overridden to a degree, and you will find that the body is 10 times stronger then the brain will let it be. What overrides the brain is your personal desire, and “you cannot measure someone’s heart” (or desire).

The strength of the mind can be its very weakness when someone is seeking challenging special operations programs or selection events. However, the brain also can shut off the pain in life-or-death situations. Stories of people crawling miles on broken legs or cutting off their trapped arm to escape a certain death situation demonstrate the true power of the mind and body.

Related article: Dissociation Skills

Former Navy SEAL David Goggins' mantra is that when you are exhausted and think you have nothing left, you actually have 40% more. Goggins is like many other special-ops soldiers. Listening to your mind when it says “quit” and talk to yourself in a positive (never-quit) way requires significant amounts of “want to” as well as tough training. How hard are you willing to push yourself to achieve it? If you are able to disengage the quit demon in your head, you will realize that your body is 10 times stronger than the brain will let it be.

However, our body is affected by what the mind tells it. From real or perceived dangers to emotional states, the body is inundated by messages from the brain that can cause immediate or long-term ailments. High blood pressure or a stomach ulcer can develop during high-stress periods that range from event anxiety to deaths in the family.

Related Article: Physical and Mental Toughness.

The connection between the mind and body is real. Both are constantly affecting each other positively and negatively. But it all starts with your attitude toward your future goals.

“Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.” -- Hans Selye, pioneering endocrinologist

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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