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The Mind and Body Connection

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 Ft. Jackson, S.C. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Lock)
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 Ft. Jackson, S.C. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Lock)

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

Dr. James Gordon explains the mind and body connection this way: "The brain and peripheral nervous system, the endocrine and immune systems, and indeed, all the organs of our body and all the emotional responses we have, share a common chemical language and are constantly communicating with one another."

Why This Connection Matters

For the typical readers of this column, realizing that the mind and body are communicating constantly and can positive and negatively interfere with your physical progress of training and other physical challenges is an important recognition. Knowing there are ways to push through mental and physical barriers can be the difference between success and failure (or even 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 thoroughly exhausted. That is when you learn how to find fuel in the tank, when you thought it was empty.

Mental Toughness Definition: “Finding the fuel when the tank is empty.”

Strength and Weaknesses of the Mind

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

Every goal we strive for is first and foremost is a mental challenge. Once the goal is pushing the physical limits of the body, the mind will start 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, during many hours of studying for a big final exam through the night, or many hours of physical training in uncomfortable conditions (wet, cold, hot, dark, murky) the mind can start creating 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. These are all natural responses to stress and danger.

If positively trained and physically and mentally prepared, the brain can be an unstoppable force that is instrumental to your success. “When there is a will – there is a way.” Our brain is a masterful organ in charge of everything, but it can be overridden to a degree and you can find that the body is ten 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), metaphorically speaking.

Obviously, the strengths 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 when in serious life or death situations. Stories and people crawling miles on broken legs or cutting off their trapped arm to escape a certain death situation demonstrate the true power of both the mind and body.

Related article: Dissociation Skills

Strength and Weaknesses of the Body

Former Navy SEAL David Goggin’s mantra is that when you are exhausted and think you have nothing left, you actually have 40% more. Goggins, like many other special ops soldiers, is able to turn off the part of the brain that says stop and justify both mentally and physically that his body is still capable of moving toward a goal – no matter how tired or even injured he is. Being able to not listen to your mind when it says “quit” and talk to yourself in a positive (never quit) way is a skill that 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 (happy, sad, angry, depressed), 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. Both real and perceived threats can create the same stress hormones that have catabolic effects on our body.

Related Article: Physical and Mental Toughness.

Conclusion

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,” states Hans Selye, a pioneering endocrinologist.

Another great saying is: “Your mind will quit 1000 times before your body will. So - do not listen to yourself, but talk to yourself instead.” A positive attitude and self-talk can carry you a long way when the journey gets challenging.

Stew Smith works as a presenter / editorial board with the Tactical Strength and Conditioning program of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). There are also over 800 articles on Military.com Fitness Forum focusing on a variety of fitness, nutritional, and tactical issues military members face throughout their career. Latest Fitness Books: Navy SEAL Weight Training and Tactical Fitness