Linking the physical body to mental wellbeing
I find that when I step away from the busyness in my life, I often feel that I have not breathed out for a long time. I am often either holding my breath or focused more on my in-breath than my out-breath. I find a great relief in taking a deep breath in and letting out a big, deep sigh. There is a good reason why it is called a sigh of relief! Why not try it now for yourself?
Becoming aware of how we are breathing is an important way to work with our body. Are you holding your breath for long periods of time, for example while writing an email? Are you breathing deeply or shallowly? Are you breathing into the upper part of your lungs (chest and shoulders moving with your breath) or are you breathing into the lower part of your lungs (belly moving with your breath)? It turns out that deep slow belly breaths help to calm our nervous system and release stress. If you combine that with big sighs on the out breath, you are likely to calm down quickly and easily in stressful situations.
We spend 24hrs a day with our body, and without us having to think about it. If we are fortunate, our body spends 24hrs of every day keeping us alive. It breathes for us, pumps blood for us, allows us to move, senses the world, allows us to communicate, keeps us at the right temperature, fights diseases, digests food, gets rid of waste and supplies everything that our brain needs in order to function properly.
And yet, many of us completely ignore our bodies, except for worrying about whether they are fit, thin or muscly enough to meet some unknown expectation.
However, the body provides so much information if we are willing to listen. It holds so much vitality if we are willing to open to it. It also holds onto so much stress. By bringing awareness to our bodies we can transform a lot of our day to day and long term experience of stress and challenging emotions.
There are a number of powerful techniques to connect to our bodies, both to listen to the wisdom and to let go of what we no longer need. Techniques such as mindfulness, UZAZU, breathwork, somatic therapy, yoga, martial arts and chi gong can all bring us back in touch with our physical body. In turn we can become more masterful in many areas of our lives.
The mind and the body
When our mind identifies a threat, it uses several strategies to put our body into a heightened state of alert. These includes hormone releases and nervous system impulses. The combination of chemicals and electrical signals get our body ready to “fight or flee”. This response is vitally important to the survival of all mammals and has certainly supported our survival as a species. This response was probably essential for us as early humans to help us fight bears and run away from tigers.
However, in today’s modern society, we no longer experience the same threats. Today’s fight or flight triggers are “will I get this promotion at work tomorrow?” or “how much money can I afford to spend this week?”. Our bodies do not know the difference and that is why our population are experiencing more anxiety today than ever before. Rather than experiencing a highly level of stress every now and again, which gives the body time to release, we face ongoing cycles of stress. These continuous cycles of stress take their toll on the physical body and the mind.
Most of us experienced some stress as a child through a perceived or real lack of safety when we were young. Perhaps our caregiver did not respond to us the way we needed at the time, or there could have been bullying or abuse in some form. Early trauma can be very mild all the way through to severe and complex. Depending on the level of trauma, and how we can naturally deal with the trauma, this can manifest in difficulties in our adult life. These difficulties show up in our relationships, behaviours, thought patterns and mental health.
Studies over the past few decades have revealed that the emotional part of our memories are stored in our body. Because of the discomfort that is often related to difficult thoughts and memories, we often suppress those memories and resist experiencing the related emotions and feelings in our body. This is particularly true when we are faced with a traumatic experience. During even mild trauma, our brain gets overwhelmed and does not properly file our memories of the event. When we get triggered by something that reminds us of the trauma, we can get very challenging physical experiences and responses, such as feelings of rage, anxiety, flinching to touch, deep fear etc.
Techniques to increase our body awareness help us to tap into the connection between our mind and our body. This helps us to notice when we are getting stressed and to learn to step away. It helps us to release emotions that are stored or ‘trapped’ in the body and therefore release old hurt and trauma. In this way somatic (body) work uses the physical body to solve the issues of the mind. The individual’s awareness of their body allows them to explore their emotional concerns from new perspectives.
There are many methods that helps us to both read our own body positions and to change our body positions to affect how we feel and how we interact with the world around us. Some ways of holding our body focus our attention on ourselves, while there are other ways to hold our bodies focus our attention on others and the world around us. You can try this out by leaning back, dropping your head, curling your body a little and making yourself small. Notice if you feel more connected to the outside world or to your inner world as you do this. There are powerful ways, such as UZAZU, to work with body positions to shift our beliefs, the way we interact with others, the way we feel and our confidence, just to name a few.
An important way that animals deal with intense stress is by shaking. In this video, you will see an impala that demonstrates this shaking quite dramatically at 1 minute 30 seconds into the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ox7Uj2pw-80. As humans we also have this mechanism to shake off stress. Shaking has become an important element of several somatic therapies, and there is one specifically focused on this approach (known as TRE). Often we don't allow ourselves to shake because it seems out of control, or inappropriate to be seen to be doing this. By denying our body this action it can suppress the release of the stress. There is evidence that allowing stress to build up in the body can lead to premature ageing of our cells. Next time you notice that you are taken by surprise by a loud noise or someone getting too close, try letting out a silent shudder and letting your body release any stress before it builds up or gets lock down into the body.
Other methods for working with the body include somatic experiencing where we allow our past experiences to move our body rather than to become ruminating thoughts. These body movements can allow us to connect more deeply to the stories from our past, and to release blockages or difficulties more easily than through talking and thinking. Another approach was developed by the psychologist Wilhelm Reich. It works with the different ways that we armour ourselves against the outside world and against our own fears and beliefs.
However, there are many simple ways to work with the body to release pent up stress and emotion. Sport, dance, and yoga are also known to release stress, increase endorphins and bring us back into a state of calm, even bliss, with a feeling of being grounded. If you have the chance to take a walk or a run, especially through nature, you will probably find that a lot of your worries and stress have gone by the time you get back. Even a good stretch and yawn can make the world of difference.
Mindfulness is all about bringing an attitude of noticing without judgement to our experience of life. This can be applied to pretty much anything, but it becomes particularly powerful when we become mindful of our bodies.
Research has shown us that practicing mindfulness is key to managing depression and anxiety, as well as regulating our emotions. It causes us to open up and explore and accept our emotions; allowing us to identify our emotions easier and thus permitting us to deal with them in ways that are helpful to our wellbeing.
Mindfulness invites us to become aware of the sensations and movement of the body through our breathing, body scan or mindful walking. The analogy is that if our mind is like the leaves of a tree in the wind, our body is like the trunk. The leaves blow all over in the wind, just like our mind, while our body remains steady and constant. We can find a great deal of support for our mind by bringing our awareness down into our body.
Try paying closer attention to your senses. Ask reflective statements such as “Do I feel anything differently now that I have observed my body sensations?”. These can help anchor you into your body, and to learn how your body responds to your emotions and thoughts. When you become aware of how your body reacts to your feelings and thoughts, you will develop more freedom to choose how to respond.
There are more ways than ever before to help us work through our emotions.
In recent decades, the quest for dealing with unresolved emotions has led to many theories and solutions, there is something for everyone!
If you do not have money to spend on therapy, there are so many amazing books out there which help explain mindfulness. If you are not a fan of reading, then you can find many YouTube videos to help you increase your body awareness.
In today’s busy times, it is important that you are looking after yourself, even a few minutes a day will make a difference in the short and long run.
If you found any of the material in this article difficult, perhaps bringing up challenging emotions and thoughts, there is plenty of help available. Please reach out to myself, your doctor or any mental health professional and seek the support that you may need.
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2. Lipnicki, D. M., & Byrne, D. G. (2008). An effect of posture on anticipatory anxiety. International Journal of Neuroscience, 118(2), 227-237.
3. Mischke-Reeds, M. (2015). 8 keys to practicing mindfulness: Practical strategies for emotional health and well-being. WW Norton & Co.
4. Van der Maas, L. C., Köke, A., Pont, M., Bosscher, R. J., Twisk, J. W., Janssen, T. W., & Peters, M. L. (2015). Improving the multidisciplinary treatment of chronic pain by stimulating body awareness. The Clinical journal of pain, 31(7), 660-669.