When visiting Uganda, a local person asked me about health care in the UK. He seemed confused as he asked me: "Is it true you have hospitals for head issues separate from your general hospitals caring for the body?"

"Yes," I replied. "We care for mental health separately."

"How strange," he replied. "I always thought the brain was in the body."

He made me realise that the way we see problems in this country isn’t necessarily the only way to handle issues.

As a society, we tend to departmentalise issues to allow for specialisms. As helpful as this may be, the reality is that all mental health issues reside in the body.

We tend to think healthy emotional wellbeing is all about our mind and feelings. But what about the body, where everything is held?

You might like to think of who you are as a kind of guesthouse. Everything relating to you passes through the front door into the house. This includes your thinking, emotions, senses and everything that happens to you on a daily basis. You can imagine the wear and tear that a busy guesthouse experiences. Our bodies in the same way become the container that has to carry the daily load of life.

A simple way of recognising this is to think about stress. Over the years of running workshops on stress, I always begin by asking people to share with me how their body tells them when they are stressed? Three things quickly become self-evident. First, everyone is aware that stress affects their bodies. Secondly, they are able to tell me where in the body they identify the stress. Thirdly, we all experience stress in the body individually. I’m usually told a whole spectrum of ways in which stress manifests itself. This includes headaches, tense shoulders, stomach aches, digestive problems, over eating, under eating, eczema increasing, twitchy legs, poor concentration, sleepiness or poor sleep and the list goes on. Clearly, we need to look after our bodies with a healthy diet and balanced exercise, but perhaps we need to also listen and observe what our bodies might be telling us.

In the 1970s, research showed that the body learns to adjust to all sorts of stimuli. The body may get hooked on recreational drugs because they quickly make us feel so good, but activities like swimming, marathon running, cycling, or mountain climbing, which initially cause discomfort and even terror, can ultimately become very enjoyable. This gradual adjustment signals that a new chemical balance has been established within the body, so that athletes get a sense of wellbeing and exhilaration from pushing their bodies to the limit.

At this point, just as with drug addiction, we start to crave the activity and experience withdrawal when it’s not available.

The brain is key to the wellbeing of our body. There is a two-way communication between the brain and the body helping to meet our needs such as food, rest, protection, sex, and shelter.

It also creates a picture of the world to point us where to go to satisfy those needs. It also provides warning of dangers and opportunities along the way adjusting our behaviour according to the situation at hand.

Psychological issues occur when these internal signals don’t work, so that we end up lost and confused.

This can be like the rabbit in front of the headlights, when we freeze and feel paralysed to act in a given situation. In recent years this has become more evident with people who experience trauma. We have learned that trauma actually produces physical changes including re-wiring of the brains alarm system and altering the stress hormone activity. This compromises that sense of ‘being alive.’ This is why highly stressed individuals become hyper-vigilant to threats, which is exhausting and affects their daily engagement with life. It is also why individuals tend to repeat the same mistakes in life and have difficulty in learning from the past.

The good news is that the brain is not fixed as previously thought, but is plasticised to change.

One approach, rather than endless talking about the issue, is a ‘bottom up’ approach where we enable a person to adjust their body movements to counteract and contradict emotions of helplessness. There is a saying that, ‘the body keeps the score of your life’. You experience a situation and the body reacts accordingly. If this keeps happening, then over time the body reacts at the first hint of a similar situation. But we can teach the body to react differently, which in turn affects our feelings and overall behaviour to break a negative cycle.

All of this begins by being inquisitive and noticing how our bodies react in different situations. The more you are aware of what’s happening to you physically, the greater chance you can change the situation for the better.

Happy observing.

Dr Bill Merrington is a therapist and chartered psychologist working in the York district (bmerri.com or contact info@bmerri.com)