Counseling Today, Cover Stories

When brain meets body

By Laurie Meyers February 22, 2017

Chinese medicine has always acknowledged the link between the body and the mind. In Western medicine, from the time of the ancient Greeks through the Elizabethan era, the thinking was that four bodily humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood) influenced mood, physical health and even personality. Shakespeare built some of his characters around the characteristics of the humors (such as anger or depression). It sounds faintly ridiculous, but the idea that good health came from a balance of the humors — in essence, that the physical and the mental were closely related — was not so far off the mark. Then along came René Descartes and dualism — the school of thought that says that mind and body are separate and never the twain shall meet, essentially.

In the past few decades, however, Western medicine has once again begun to acknowledge that the body and mind don’t just coexist, they intermingle and affect each other in ways that researchers are only beginning to understand.

Counselors, of course, are well-aware of the mind and body connection, but it is becoming increasingly evident that a person’s thoughts can directly cause changes in physiological processes such as the regulation of cortisol. This cause-and-effect relationship suggests that in some cases, symptoms typically considered psychosomatic in the past might actually be indicators of physical changes that are having or will have an effect on the client’s physical health.

Take, for instance, something that most people have experienced at some point in their lives: a “nervous” stomach. It turns out that having a “gut feeling” and “going with your gut” are not just metaphors. Researchers have begun to refer to the stomach as the “second brain” and the “little brain.”

Although no one is going to be making reasoned decisions or solving algebra equations with the little brain anytime soon, the enteric nervous system (ENS) does possess some significant brainlike qualities. It contains 100 million neurons and numerous types of neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine. In fact, researchers have found that most of the body’s serotonin (anywhere from 90 to 95 percent) and approximately half of its dopamine are found in the stomach. The main role of the ENS is to control digestion, but it can also send messages to the brain that may affect mood and behavior.

Researchers are still teasing out whether (and how) the gut-brain conversation causes emotion to affect the gastrointestinal system and vice versa, but a major area of focus is the microbiome — the vast community of bacteria that dwell primarily within the gut. So far, research suggests that these bacteria affect many things in the body, including mood. Gut bacteria may directly alter our behavior; they definitely affect levels of serotonin. (For more discussion of the microbiome and its possible influence on mental health, read the Neurocounseling: Bridging Brain and Behavior column on page 16 of the March print issue of Counseling Today.)

The bacteria in the gastrointestinal system may also play a role in depression and anxiety. Digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome and functional issues such as diarrhea, bloating and constipation are associated with stress and depression. Some researchers believe a causal connection may exist that is bidirectional — meaning it is not always the psychological that causes the gastrointestinal problems but perhaps vice versa. Interestingly, research has shown that approximately 75 percent of people who have autism have some kind of gastro abnormality such as digestive issues, food allergies or gluten sensitivity.

Most people have heard the injunction to “think with your heart, not your head.” And in Western culture, the notion of heartbreak is commonly understood not just as an emotional metaphor but as an actual sensation of physical pain. Once again, these aphorisms and metaphors represent an instinctive understanding of another significant connection: that between emotion and the heart.

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is linked to emotion and mental health — depression in particular. Research indicates that 25 to 50 percent of people with CAD have symptoms of depression. Some experts believe not only that depression can cause CAD, but that CAD may cause depression. Increased activity in the amygdala is associated with arterial inflammation, and inflammation is a factor in CAD.

Research indicates that inflammation in the body plays some kind of role in many chronic diseases, including asthma, autoimmune disorders, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Some researchers believe that inflammation may also be a causative factor in mental illness.

Letting go

If physical and mental health are so tightly bound, what role do counselors play in balancing the two? A vital role, believes licensed professional counselor (LPC) Russ Curtis, co-leader of the American Counseling Association’s Interest Network for Integrated Care.

Yes, counselors can help clients manage chronic health conditions and cope with stress and mental illness, Curtis says, but it’s the client-counselor relationship — the therapeutic bond — that he views as the most important element. He believes the simple act of listening, taking clients’ concerns seriously and becoming their ally can help jump-start their healing process. “Once you sit down and build a rapport with clients and treat them with respect and dignity, you are helping them heal,” says Curtis, an associate professor of counseling at Western Carolina University in North Carolina.

Curtis, who has a background in integrated care, doesn’t equate “helping” with “curing.” But he does believe that inflammation in the body strongly affects mental and physical health, and he says that counselors possess the tools to help clients ameliorate the factors that may contribute to inflammation.

For example, gratitude and forgiveness, and particularly letting go of anger, are essential to emotional wellness, and in some studies, Curtis says, they have been shown to have a physical effect. In one study, participants were instructed to jump as high as possible. Those who thought of someone they had consciously forgiven despite being wronged by them in the past were able to jump higher than participants who received no such instruction, he says. Another study found that cultivating forgiveness by performing a lovingkindness meditation produced a positive effect on participants’ parasympathetic systems.

Curtis, who also researches positive psychology, asks clients in his small part-time private practice to keep gratitude journals, which is something that he also does personally. In addition, he uses motivational interviewing techniques to help clients develop forgiveness.

If a client isn’t ready to forgive, the counselor might explore the ways in which anger may be affecting the person’s emotional and physical health and functioning in daily life, Curtis says. If the client is still resistant to the thought of issuing forgiveness, then the counselor can broach the idea of the client at least letting go of his or her anger, he adds.

Anger is particularly toxic to personal well-being, stresses Ed Neukrug, an LPC and licensed psychologist who recently retired from private practice, where he focused in part on men’s health issues. “Anger is a difficult topic for many clients to understand and address appropriately,” he says. “Usually, individuals who have angry outbursts have not learned to monitor their emotions appropriately. They most likely have had models who had similar outbursts. These individuals need to obtain a better balance between their emotional states and their thinking states.”

“Oftentimes, just teaching clients about mindfulness can be helpful because it begins to have them focus on what they are feeling,” continues Neukrug, a member of ACA and a professor of counseling and human services at Old Dominion University in Virginia. “Once they begin to realize that they have angry feelings, they can then talk to the person who they are angry at in appropriate ways, to reduce the anger and resolve the conflict early on. If they wait too long, they are likely to have an outburst.”

Anger, like stress, can cause physical changes in the body, such as a surge in adrenalin, cortisol and other stress hormones; raised blood pressure; and increased heart rate and muscle tension. Over time, as the body is constantly put into this “fight or flight” mode, the immune system may treat chronic stress or anger almost like a disease, triggering inflammation.

To help ameliorate the effects of toxic emotions, Neukrug recommends that counselors teach clients how to sit and engage in quiet contemplation. He notes that many people don’t realize that they are involved in a constant, almost unconscious, running mental commentary throughout the day. By taking time for self-reflection, clients can become better aware of how they are reacting to these thoughts, both emotionally and physically, and can then engage in stress reduction techniques such as progressive relaxation and mindfulness exercises.

Neukrug also recommends what he calls “life-enhancing changes” such as exercising, eating healthfully, journaling, confronting and resolving personal conflicts, and getting enough sleep. He also is a big proponent of nurturing personal relationships, taking regular breaks from work and going away on vacations to lessen the effects of stress.

Healthy habits

David Engstrom, an ACA member and health psychologist who works in integrative health centers, teaches his clients mindfulness exercises and recommends that they engage in daily gratitude journaling. But he also emphasizes a factor that is often overlooked despite its unquestioned importance to physical and mental well-being: sleep.

“It’s the first thing I focus on [with new clients],” he says. “There are few people who can be real short sleepers,” meaning less than six hours per night. “Most of us if we are [regularly getting] under seven hours a night have a higher risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, hypertension, chronic cardiovascular problems, depression and anxiety.”

Engstrom has his clients keep a sleep log detailing information such as the number of hours of sleep they get each night, when they went to sleep, how often they woke up in the night and the overall quality of their sleep. He also has them track their alcohol intake and physical exercise. He notes that exercise can vastly improve sleep quality, whereas drinking any alcohol after about 5 p.m. hinders sleep.

For clients who are having trouble falling asleep, Engstrom recommends mindfulness techniques such as being still and present in the bedroom and practicing deep breathing. He also sometimes gives clients MP3 files and CDs that contain guided mindfulness activities.

Counselors also can also play a role in changing clients’ health behavior for the better through psychoeducation, Curtis says. He recommends the use of simple cards that list information such as the benefits of smoking cessation or strategies for preventing or controlling diabetes. Curtis believes that clients are best served physically and mentally by integrated health care, a model in which a person’s physical and mental health needs can be attended to in one location by multiple professionals from different disciplines, such as LPCs and primary care physicians. He currently serves on two integrated care advisory boards for local mental health centers and also supervises students serving internships in integrated care settings.

When he practiced in integrated care, Curtis says a significant percentage of the clients he saw had not just mental health issues but also serious physical issues such as diabetes or cancer. “I was part of providing real support,” he says. “Instead of just having a 20-minute session with the doctor and being told what to do, clients were able to sit with me and process their fears and what they were feeling. I was also making sure that they understood what to take, where to go for bloodwork and making sure they didn’t feel lost [in the process].”

Neukrug uses a structured interview intake process in which he asks clients about their medical histories, any past or current issues with substance abuse and any experiences of major trauma. He has found that many clients are more likely to reveal issues such as a history of trauma or concerns about their physical health in written form rather than verbally. He notes that men in particular can be hesitant to raise common health-related issues with which they are struggling, such as erectile dysfunction, sexually transmitted diseases and prostatitis.

“Men [are] fragile about their egos,” he says. “If they have a disease that affects how they view their manliness or impairs them, they may just not want to talk about it. But any of these diseases can impact their relationships, their ability to earn an income, which is related to male identity and being the provider, so counselors just need to have that attitude that they are open to hearing about anything.”

Trauma’s toll on the body

Examining the health of adults who have experienced childhood abuse and neglect paints a particularly vivid portrait of the connection between physical and mental health. A large body of research — most of it using information gathered from the joint Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-Kaiser Permanente study “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACE) — has demonstrated that early exposure to violence and trauma can lead to significant illness later in life.

The initial study was conducted in 1995-1997 and surveyed 17,000 patients at Kaiser’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego. Participants answered detailed questions about childhood history of abuse (emotional, physical or sexual), neglect (emotional or physical) and family dysfunction (for example, a parent being treated violently, the presence of household substance abuse, mental illness in the household, parental separation or divorce, or a member of the household who was engaged in or had engaged in criminal behavior). Respondents who reported one or more experiences in any of the “adverse” categories were found to be more likely to develop chronic conditions and diseases such as heart disease, obesity, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, liver disease, depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. The risk of developing these health problems also increased in correlation with the number of adverse incidents the study participants reported experiencing.

Although some of the health problems developed by adult survivors of trauma can be traced directly to injury or neglect, in many cases, specific cause and effect cannot be established. Nevertheless, the correlation between trauma and illness is significant, and some research findings — such as an increased incidence of autoimmune diseases among adult survivors of child abuse and neglect — suggest that the connection can be systemic and affect the entire body.

Causation versus correlation aside, clients who have experienced long-term trauma are often living with both mental and physical complaints, and the number of prospective clients who have a background of adverse childhood events may surprise some clinicians, say trauma experts. More than half of the ACE respondents reported experience with one adverse category, and one-fourth of participants had been exposed to two or more categories of adverse experiences.

Given the prevalence of traumatic exposure, ACA member Cynthia Miller, an LPC who has a private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia, believes it is important to ask about early childhood experiences as part of her intake process, and she urges other clinicians to do the same. She has clients fill out a written scale based on the questionnaire used in the ACE study. If clients indicate a history of abuse or neglect, Miller uses it as a way to explore how trauma has affected their lives.

“I think counselors need to know that trauma can affect the body in unexpected ways — ways in which the client may not even be aware,” Miller says. “I ask what impact they think these experiences had on their lives and then segue to asking, ‘What effect do you think this has had on your health?’”

Miller focuses on self-care practices for clients. For instance, clients might be using food to self-soothe, which can lead to obesity, diabetes and a whole host of other problems. Miller helps them to examine how the behavior is related to what they have been through and to identify what they are trying to soothe.

Miller also teaches her clients to tune in to their bodies. That can be extremely difficult because trauma survivors often use a kind of dissociation or “tuning out” as a survival mechanism, she explains. Clients who have been through physical trauma often exist, in essence, from the chin up, totally separating themselves from what is happening with their bodies, Miller says.

“Where in your body do you feel that anger?” Miller asks in trying to help them reestablish that whole-body connection. “Where do you feel the stress?”

According to Miller, yoga and mindfulness, particularly progressive muscle relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing, can be very useful for helping clients learn how to self-soothe and pay attention to how their bodies are responding to what they are doing.

On a more basic level, counselors can also play an essential role in ensuring that their clients get proper health care. “A lot of times I’ve found trauma patients don’t even go to the doctor,” Miller says. “Sometimes they may have issues with getting help, such as thinking there’s nothing they can do [to help the situation], and it all feels too hard. One of the questions I routinely ask is, ‘How long has it been since you had a good physical?’ If they say a year or more, I ask, ‘Would you go have one now? If not, why? What are your concerns? How can I help?’”

Miller says counselors can play an essential role in educating clients about the effects of trauma on the body and how that can cause chronic inflammation. Counselors can encourage clients to seek any needed medical care and also talk to them about what they can do personally to help counteract their bodies’ inflammatory responses, she says.

A partner in health

Another area where counselors can help clients with their physical health is by talking with them about why it is important to take medication, Miller says. She notes that in the general population, only about 50 percent of people who are prescribed medications for chronic conditions take them regularly. Counselors can uncover the legitimate concerns that get in the way of treatment compliance, Miller continues, such as the complexity of the regimen, whether the client has adequate access to obtain needed medication or treatment, and whether the client has easy access to the basics such as food, shelter and water.

It is also important for counselors to explore clients’ in-depth thoughts and feelings related to treatment, Miller says. For example, do they even believe in taking medication, or do they simply dislike taking pills?

Once counselors uncover the reasons that a client might not be adhering to medical regimens or engaging in healthy behavior, they should also consider whether the client is even ready to make a change, says Miller, adding that she finds motivational interviewing helpful in this regard.

Counselors can also help clients break down the change into small steps. For instance, Miller says, “When you talk about exercise, people think you are automatically talking about 60 minutes on the treadmill or kickboxing. [But] what is reasonable? If a person is very depressed, maybe you start [the process] in session. If it’s a decent day outside, can you do the session outside and maybe take a walk?”

Clients also need to be made aware that change is often slow, Miller says. If they did five minutes of exercise this week and didn’t exercise the week before, that five minutes is worth celebrating, she says.

Miller also works with clients on sleep hygiene, including tracking how much caffeine they ingest, how late in the day they stop consuming caffeine and the amount of sugar they eat. “Are they setting a sleep time?” asks Miller. “Are they being exposed to blue light? Is there a TV in the bedroom?”

She also helps clients develop a pre-bedtime routine and, if they have trouble going to sleep, encourages them to get up and do something boring until they feel sleepy again.

“If they are still having disrupted sleep and nightmares [even with sleep hygiene], I refer to a physician,” Miller says. “I’m not against someone taking a sleep medication if all other routes have failed because not getting sleep becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.”

Miller, like the other experts interviewed for this story, is an advocate for integrated care because it provides a more complete picture of — and a stronger connection between — clients’ physical and mental health. “If we have counselors who are embedded in primary care, we get a better picture of the client,” she says. “If we are separate, we’re not necessarily going to hear about how long they’ve been struggling with obesity or keeping their blood sugar down. We might not know that they’ve told the doctor that they’re struggling to take medicine regularly.”

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association.

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Practice briefs (counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs)

  • “Wellness” by Dodie Limberg and Jonathan Ohrt
  • “Complex Trauma and Associated Diagnoses” by Greg Brack and Catherine J. Brack

Books and DVDs (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Relationships in Counseling and the Counselor’s Life by Jeffrey A. Kottler and Richard S. Balkin
  • A Counselor’s Guide to Working With Men edited by Matt Englar-Carlson, Marcheta P. Evans and Thelma Duffey
  • Stress Management: Understanding and Treatment (DVD) presented by Edna Brinkley

Podcast (counseling.org/knowledge-center/podcasts)

  • “The Brain, Connectivity and Sequencing” with Jaclyn M. Gisburne and Jana C. Harr

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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