Art by Cheng Chen: Shanghai

The Mind-Body Connection on Love

By Sybil Ottenstein

Just as love has the power to create... pain, so too can it heal the physical body...

Classical wisdom teaches us to live in the lofty distant tower of our minds, high above the clouds. Our mind is the elite control center, with the unique capacity to analyze and hypothesize, to think and to feel. Many miles beneath this self-contained center of command lays the body, akin to the mechanical slave that carries out the orders from above, the physical reaction to the intellectualized command. We often have the tendency to proudly inhabit and glorify our mind and neglect the messages of our body, as if the two spoke totally different languages or lived on entirely different time zones.


I’d like to challenge that assumption with some very basic truths that I am certain we all experience at our most conscious of moments. Take for instance a sensation many Gen-Yer’s know all too well – some good old fashioned anxiety. Personally, when I feel anxious, my body experiences a rush of nervous tingle through my chest and down my arms. Or take sadness. When I feel the heavy gloom of sadness sweep through my gut, my tear ducts fill with melancholy liquor, aching to flood my cheeks in a race to relieve.


Are these physical reactions to intellectual processes? Or are they emotional responses to bodily commands?


Let’s analyze these questions through the lens of love.


As inherently social animals (thank you, David Brooks), our relationships have a uniquely potent effect on both the mind and the body. The most powerful of these relationships are the intimate bonds that we acquire and nurture, balance and sabotage, develop and destroy. Romantic love provides us with a crystal clear window into the complex interrelationship between our minds and bodies.


So let’s open it up.


When two individuals fall deeply in love, the mind essentially extends the boundaries of ‘self’ to include another. ‘I’ becomes ‘we’ on both the physical and emotional levels. On the physical level, we trade bits of ourselves when we make love to our partner, absorbing one another’s energy and identity. On an emotional level, as two people grow closer in love, our partner’s strengths, aspirations, fears and insecurities all become slowly intertwined with our own.


We all know that it is impossible to appreciate the beautiful highs of romantic love without having intimate knowledge of its painful lows. Rejection from a lover generates a painful physical manifestation in every molecule of our being. A scorned lover describes their pain as crushing, crippling – the feeling of being emotionally punched in the stomach. But this is no stomachache (at least not exclusively), as the root of this pain comes from deep inside the brain, a physical signaling so acute that its expression is nothing if not emotional. Imagine that.


Just as love has the power to create a sensation of physical pain, so too can it heal the physical body in the most astounding of ways. Take for instance New York Times writer Diane Ackerman, whose love and affection mended her 74-year-old husband back to functioning health after suffering from a left-hemisphere stroke. Ackerman’s empathy, guidance and affection helped to rewire her husband’s brain, allowing him to regain speech, vision and the ability to write.


Healthy and compassionate romantic love allows space for the brain to expand, heal and evolve. We stand up tall, radiate warmth and move around our world with the grace and poise that only a person in the grips of love can exude. When love hurts, fear and pain force us to close the doors of compassion, as we hunker down and physically shield ourselves in an act of emotional self-preservation. Our bodies constrict, we avoid eye contact and we disappear into the dark thoughts and insecurities within.


Far from a stretch of highway connecting the control center to its operations unit, today we are slowly becoming aware of the complex and beautiful interrelationship between body and mind. As each element has such a formidable impact on the other, it is critical that we approach both mind and body with consciousness and care, all day, every day. For it is how we choose to spend the years, months, hours and moments of our lives that define how we think and feel, literally transforming the very essence of who we are.

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