Mind & Body Wellness

Mind & Body Wellness

By Gina M. Furr, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist

The idea that our minds and bodies are connected is not new, though the extent of the connection is just being uncovered by science. The idea is simple, when we pay attention to and care for our bodies we are also helping our minds. Conversely, when we are attentive to our emotional and psychological needs we change our bodies physically, biologically, and chemically.

 

Examples of strategies that are helpful for your mind and body

 

Breathing

 

Sounds simple, right? Usually we breathe without thinking about it, which is generally a good thing. However, this also means that when we feel anxious, frustrated, irritated, worried, upset, etc. our breath can take a turn and become shallow, quick, or irregular. The result can be a chain reaction in our bodies leading to difficulty concentrating, muscle pain, racing heartbeat, nausea, headaches, fatigue, panic, tension, and more.

 

The good news is that when we do stop and pay attention to our breathing the chain reaction reverses.

 

A basic breathing pattern to try is called “parallel breathing,” so called because the length of your inhale is equal to the length of your exhale. The goal here is to create a slow and regular breath, creating a sense of relaxation in body and mind (physiologically speaking you’re turning down stress hormones and optimizing blood and oxygen flow), and ultimately allowing you to go about your business more effectively.


Here’s how it works:

 

Get comfortable where you are and relax your arms, letting your eyes focus down or to close, and begin by just focusing your attention on your breathing. Just notice it at this point without trying to make changes.

Inhale slowly and smoothly for 4 seconds, filling your lower lungs first (you can do this by pushing out your stomach as you inhale, like you’re filling from the bottom up).

 

Take a brief 1 second pause holding the air in. Then exhale slowly and smoothly for the full 4 seconds again. Take another 1 second pause before inhaling again.

 

Breathing this way for even a short amount of time is enough to make a difference. Try starting with 2 minutes before or after a meal or whenever you’re feeling uncomfortable, then adding to it as you like.


 

Exercise

 

Exercise, or really, just moving your body is important for both the quantity and the quality of life. You don’t have to go to the gym – playing with kids, gardening, cleaning the house, taking the stairs, etc. are all effective ways for you to be active. Research is showing that the impact of exercise is additive, this means that 2 minutes here, 5 minutes there, and so on add up to a “full workout.” In other words, you don’t need to clear a solid 30-60 minutes for a workout to boost your health.

 

Cortisol is a hormone released when we’re stressed that kicks us into “fight or flight” mode. The trouble is that when we face chronic stressors we are exposed to more and more cortisol and the results are damaging to the way our minds and bodies function. When you’re being active your neurochemicals are working in a different way (especially norepinephrine) and helping your body and mind be more resilient to stress.  In other words, exercise helps you decrease cortisol and it’s hurtful effects, even if your stressors remain the same.

 

In some cases, exercise has been shown to be as effective as medication in treating depression and anxiety. It is often also an important part of treating chronic pain.

 

Yoga

 

In addition to being a form of exercise, Yoga intentionally focuses on the mind-body connection. Yoga has been shown to be an effective way to deal with symptoms of depression, lower-back pain, stress and anxiety, high blood pressure, insomnia, trauma, and chronic pain. Yoga challenges you to experience your mind and body in a different way and to pay attention what is actually happening in the moment. The result is an increased positive connection with your body and interrupted patterns of self-criticism, worry and stress.

 

There are many different forms of yoga and different instructors focus on different ways to practice. Don’t hesitate to “shop around” for a yoga class or instructor that works for you.

 

Mindfulness Meditation

 

Mindfulness meditation is an ancient practice that has gain recognition recently as science has learned more and more about its effects. Simply put, mindfulness consists of three elements, (1) intentionally paying attention (2) to what is going on in the present moment (3) without judgment. Whether the present moment is difficult, pleasant, or somewhere in between the goal of mindfulness is to be present with the thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as you experience them without judging them or pushing them away.

 

Research shows that meditation strengthens some connections in our brains (actually thickening parts of our brain), leading to increased memory, learning, and decision-making abilities. Additionally meditation has been linked to changes in the parts of brains responsible for emotional reactivity and executive functioning (things like planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, and mental flexibility). Big picture, what this means is that meditation can help our brains get out of ineffective patterns that distract us and instead allow us to focus our attention and energy on what is important to us.

 

Mindfulness meditation can be practiced formally (for example, sitting in a quiet room and practice for 20 minutes) or informally (taking a few moments to “check-in” with yourself using the 3 elements described above).  When starting initially, don’t be discouraged if you have a hard time staying “present.” It’s hard for most people. Just try to keep the non-judgmental part in mind and bring your attention back to the present moment.

 

Could therapy help?

Often times, when people are struggling with mental health or behavioral concerns strategies like the ones described here are helpful enough on their own. Other times, people benefit from a perspective that comes from outside of themselves. If you’re finding that your usual strategies for coping are not working for you, if you’re having trouble meeting your goals or obligations, or if you’re just feeling stuck, therapy could be a helpful next step. I am happy to be a resource. Check out these therapy FAQs