May 24, 2024

The mind-body connection. It's a phrase that's generated quite the buzz in recent years, and for good reason. But what exactly is the mind-body connection, and what role does it play in the field of lifestyle medicine?

Historically, medicine has focused on treating the physical symptoms of the body separate from emotional responses or experiences. Thanks to a vast amount of research that has been conducted on the subject, we now know there is an intricate connection between a person’s physical and emotional states. Thoughts, feelings and attitudes can positively or negatively affect the way our body functions. For example, if we experience chronic pain, there is a physical component of pain in the body. When that persists, a sense of hopelessness or depression may occur due to a lack of ability to engage in life.  

Mind-Body Care at the Living Well Center

The body affects the mind, and the mind affects the body – we cannot treat one without the other. At the Washington University Living Well Center, our unique focus is on helping patients with musculoskeletal conditions make positive changes to their lifestyle to improve mental and physical health at the same time. Through an emerging field called lifestyle medicine, we provide evidence-based care that’s centered around six pillars: nutrition, physical activity, stress management, restorative sleep, social connection and the avoidance of risky substances. 

The care team includes clinicians from a variety of specialties, including two full-time mental health specialists to fully support the mind-body connection. Licensed social workers Kayla Hambleton, MSW, LCSW, and Juliana Varela, LCSW, are dedicated to helping patients manage stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges that can accompany musculoskeletal conditions, chronic pain and other health disorders.

“Literature suggests that treating anxiety can decrease pain from musculoskeletal conditions and we have seen this with our approach at the Living Well Center. In our feasibility study published in 2021, patients that completed our program had a decrease in their reported measure of anxiety and an increase in their overall function,” says Devyani Hunt, MD, Living Well Center medical director and professor of orthopaedic surgery.


Pictured above: Devyani Hunt, MD, talks with a patient about pain issues. 

“I was drawn to be a part of a clinic that recognizes the role mental health plays in medicine and also seeks to support lifestyle changes to promote healing,” says Living Well Center social worker Kayla Hambleton, MSW, LCSW.

Kayla says the most rewarding part of her job is to support her patients when they need it the most. “I strive to create a safe space for patients to explore thoughts and feelings that may be influencing overall health, wellness and healing. Sometimes patients don’t have someone in their life who can be a non-biased listener to help them interpret their experiences or support what might be going on at a deeper level emotionally. Sometimes that looks like years of holding in pain or trauma from childhood that may now be coming out in physical pain or illness and the patient needs help tending to that emotional wound. Or, it can look like a newer diagnosis that prevents the patient from physically participating in their life in a way that brings them meaning and purpose, so we find ways to cope and accept that as a loss. I like to let the patient lead and direct their therapy, so they feel a sense of empowerment and ownership of the process of change.” 

Lifestyle Awareness for Better Mental Health

With May being mental health awareness month, it’s important to be cognizant of how our daily actions impact our emotional well-being. Let's dive into the six pillars of lifestyle medicine, their impact on mental health and what small lifestyle change you can implement today to help with a more positive mindset. 

1. Nutrition 

Did you know that what you eat directly affects your health and your mood? Consuming highly processed and sugary foods is shown to increase anxiety and depression. Although these foods provide our bodies with quick energy, they do not supply the brain with essential nutrients. Processed foods often give a temporary boost of dopamine, the feel-good chemical in the brain, which can briefly increase mood and motivation making these foods addictive. It takes time to establish healthy food choices that nourish our mental health. 

Eat good to feel good! Try swapping a sugary snack like a candy bar with a natural, whole-food alternative like an apple or banana. This simple change can help you avoid those that negatively impact your physical and mental health. 

2. Sleep

Have you ever struggled with racing thoughts when trying to fall asleep? Sometimes, our to-do lists and emotions from the day can get louder when we slow down at night, preventing us from falling asleep. It’s no surprise that quality sleep is needed for emotional well-being. Without good sleep, we can lose our ability to cope with stress and are at increased risk for anxiety and depression. Regularly talking with a trained psychotherapist can also help process the things that feel too overwhelming to process on your own and get in the way of good sleep.  

More rest, less stress. To avoid losing sleep to a busy mind, try designating 10-15 minutes a day to tune in to your thoughts and emotions. Use this as your “worry time”, focusing specifically on what is making you anxious and taking this time to write these things down.

3. Physical activity/exercise

Exercise is just as important for mental health as it is for physical health. It’s proven to help manage anxiety, depression and ADHD. Moving for even 10 minutes a day is shown to help lower daily stress and improve mood. 

Walk it out! Try setting a daily step challenge goal to get yourself moving. Bonus points for walking with a friend or loved one!

4. Stress management 

Did you know stress can be managed by focusing on your mindset? Every day, things happen that are beyond our control. However, we get to choose how we respond to those stressors. One way of doing this is to evaluate whether you operate out of a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is like a rock – it does not move, and you can’t control its shape. A growth mindset is like Play-Doh – it can change shape and mold into something new. Practicing a growth mindset will not only allow you to lower stress to undesirable events or situations, but it can also alleviate the feelings of being stuck that lead to depression. 

Try a new perspective. The next time you feel as though you “failed” at something, switch up your internal dialogue. A fixed mindset will have you feeling down on yourself and reinforce those negative feelings. Instead, try telling yourself, “I just tried something new, and it didn’t go well so I’ll try it a different way and see if that works better. Trying something and failing is how I learn.” By embracing challenges and learning from failure, we can build resilience to keep going during times of stress and hardship.

5. Risky behaviors 

Substance use and abuse often begin as a way to cope with stress. However, using things like drugs, alcohol and tobacco end up becoming counterproductive in managing emotional well-being. Experiencing the pain of trauma or lacking the skills to cope when life gets overwhelming can easily lead to using substances as an immediate relief. 

Heal with professional care. It is important to address the unpleasant emotions of life to avoid addiction and unwanted behaviors. Check with your primary care physician, your health insurance provider, or your employee resources team at work (if available) for help finding a trusted therapist.

6. Social connection

As humans, we are meant to connect with others. Author Bessel Van Der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score writes, “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.” Studies have shown that having even one supportive adult as a child can build resilience in adverse childhood experiences. Relationships are important and matter to our health and mental health. 

It's a date! Life gets busy, and unfortunately, friendships can sometimes take a backseat. Try to set a goal for yourself to schedule time with a close friend to share life’s ups and downs. If you can’t schedule a weekly check-in, shoot for at least once a month. 

The Living Well Center treats patients on the campus of Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital. To learn more about their services, visit


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