Mind & Body Wellness
The idea that our minds and bodies are connected is not new, though the extent of the connection is just being uncovered by science. What we know about how this connection works is updating frequently. One general fact is that 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. When we take on a goal of changing patterns in our thoughts, emotions, relationships, or other parts of life it can be helpful to find ways to use this connection to get us where we want to go. Working together in therapy we can develop these strategies uniquely tailored to you and your goals. Below are some generalized examples.
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 can reverse.
This can be as simple as gently extending your exhales. Exhalation activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System and helps to create 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.
Breathing this way for even a short amount of time is enough to make a difference. Try starting with 3 breaths before or after a meal or whenever you’re feeling uncomfortable, then adding to it as you like.
Physical activity, 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, dancing, taking the stairs, etc. are all effective ways for you to be active. Research is showing that the impact of activity can additive, this means that 2 minutes here, 5 minutes there, can be as useful for some goals as a longer block of time. In other words, you may not 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. This is a useful response when we need to take immediate action. 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 managing chronic pain.
Mindfulness meditation is an ancient practice that has gained 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.
Meditation can strengthen 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. An incredible example of our Minds changing our Brains!
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. To try some guided meditations, click here.