Deanna Roberts, MA, LCPC, BC-DMT" />

Breathe, Move, Be: Learning about the Mind-Body Connection

Take a breath.

Really do it…don’t just read these words. Take a nice, full, and deep breath.

Give yourself this moment to breathe. Wherever you are as you read this post, bring your attention to your body. What do you notice? Perhaps your breath is short and rapid right now. Does that surprise you or do you feel as though you understand what is affecting your breath? Maybe it’s because you just stepped onto public transportation and you almost did not catch your preferred train. Maybe you just received some anxiety-provoking news from someone close to you. For some people, after just a single invitation to breathe and notice their body, something shifts, their breath deepens and their body relaxes. For others the opposite might be true, and an invitation to notice their breath and their body might actually cause them to be more aware of bodily discomfort. It might invite a heightened sense of bodily awareness that is so new and uncomfortable, it actually causes them to shorten their breath or tighten their muscles even more. What was your experience? Did you try it?

Let’s try again…Now really do it this time.

Take another breath.

Right now, as you read this blog post, is there any tightness in your neck, shoulders, or upper back? What is it like to bring your awareness to those parts of your body in this present moment? Can you imagine breathing into those spaces of your body and allowing them to relax?

Let’s explore a little further together…

If you are aware of some bodily tension, become curious if it is connected to anything that happened to you today or this week. Reflect on some of the expected or unexpected experiences of the last few days. Without thinking about it too hard or trying to force an answer, is there anything that comes to mind that you might point to as a contributor to the bodily tension you are holding in this very moment? A likely cause could be the posture you engage in for the majority of your work day as you manage too many emails to count and feel constantly tethered to your phone, tablet, or laptop. Most of us sit with our heads forward, backs slouched, and chests concave as we navigate our technologically advanced world. Or perhaps another reason for the neck/shoulder/upper back tension you carry, could be the subtle fear you silently hold each day as you doubt your skillset, capabilities, value, or worthiness as an employee, partner, or parent. Internal insecurities and the negative narratives we tell ourselves also impact how we carry our bodies. These impact posture and bodily tension too.

There can be a host of different reasons for bodily, physical states, some that are within our immediate awareness and others that require more internal exploration and discovery.

Before we end this brief exercise, try a couple of shoulder shrugs or shoulder rolls with some deep inhales and exhales. Again, really give it a try!

Now notice what shifts. Did anything in your body change as you moved? If not, that’s okay. Our bodies are not always predictable and let’s be honest, this intervention was brief. But maybe, even if the alleviation of bodily tension was limited, you felt yourself relax more or let go of some unnecessary stress. At the very least, maybe it made you feel more aware of your body and the ways your experiences, thoughts, and feelings may be impacting you physically.

The Mind-Body Connection

Our mind and body are connected. Our thoughts, emotions, and core needs and wants, though they exist internally, are often exhibited externally in the way we carry ourselves, such as our postures, gestures, other non-verbal mannerisms, and the way we move, whether that’s related to our use of the space around us, our speed or pace, how tense/tight our muscles feel, or other defining movement qualities. For example, you might receive and read a critical email from a coworker that causes you to experience some self-doubt or anxiety, and then immediately notice your heart rhythm speeds up or your hands start to feel shaky. Another example would be when a friend or family member calls with some heavy, saddening news, and you can quite literally feel your stomach drop, maybe even upsetting or limiting your appetite for the rest of the day.

All day, every day, our inner selves are impacting our outer selves, whether we are aware of it or not. There can be power in understanding how both are connected. When we recognize and understand the relationship between the mind and body, there’s opportunities to know ourselves better, process and share these internal experiences in safe, supportive environments, and ultimately evaluate our realm of control and the possibility for positive change.

Mental Health and the Mind-Body Connection

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues affecting individuals today. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that nearly 30% of adults will face anxiety at some point in their lives. Whether this is a specific fear/phobia, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, or another type, most people who have experienced it are aware of the physical impact it can have on them. After a moment of heightened anxiety or panic, you may notice changes in your heart rate, feelings of restlessness, or even problems with digestion. These may be fleeting and temporary symptoms, or they may be chronic, causing lasting issues. Some other signs and symptoms of anxiety can also be found here.

Depression is another frequently experienced mental health issue in our culture. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance estimated that depression affects millions of Americans each year, and this includes both children and adults. Individuals with depression often recognize how shifts in their mood can limit full, satisfying daily living. Depression steals from the typical joys, values, and goals in a person’s life, and there can be bodily components to a depressed state too. Someone may find themselves with sleep issues, feeling lethargic, weighed down, or overly slow in their pace to meet daily tasks/responsibilities. Other depressive symptoms can be read about here.

Another example of the relationship between mental health and the mind-body connection is individuals who experience trauma. Trauma occurs when an individual experiences a troubling, distressing event, which can range in intensity or severity. Trauma impacts a person’s emotional responses, but it also can cause physical symptoms as well. There are many available resources to learn more about trauma, such as those offered by the American Psychological Association, Mental Health America, and the Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center. Sources agree that trauma impacts our bodies, and it sometimes can have a lasting effect, causing problems such as headaches, loss of appetite, and disrupted sleep patterns to name a few.

There are many examples of how disrupted mental health affects our bodies. Anxiety, depression, and trauma, provide just a few common examples of how presenting issues with our cognitions, emotions, and mood might relate to physical, bodily symptoms. It is, therefore, important when working toward improved mental health, that the body is not forgotten.

Learning more about the Mind-Body Connection

Whether you are someone who has dealt with one of the mental health issues addressed above or not, there is benefit in increasing a personal understanding of how the mind and body work together. Increasing awareness of how our thoughts, feelings, and disposition affect our bodies can help us develop healthy, effective ways of coping with life’s challenges. It can build our stamina and resiliency when we encounter stress, whether minimal or extensive, abbreviated or long-term. And it can lead to a fuller, freer, and more integrated sense of personal well-being. The mind-body connection is something that is cultivated over time by building an awareness of our bodies, practicing mindfulness, processing the impact of our internal experiences (cognitions, emotions, mood, past experiences and memories, etc.) on physical states and symptoms, and finding ways of actively shifting or changing these bodily states to discover new ones and recognize our own agency toward change.

There are many different resources for learning more about the mind-body connection. If you are interested in reading more, here are some thought-provoking articles:

Ideas for Exploring your own Mind-Body Connection

So where do you start? Below are some ideas for increasing your own understanding and awareness of the mind-body connection. These suggestions are by no means exhaustive, but instead can be considered as a starting off point if you are interested in exploring and discovering more about how your mind and body are connected.

Incorporate mind-body moments throughout your day.

Similar to the guided exercise which began this blog, it can take only a minute or two of awareness to practice a mind-body connection. There can be a misconception that in order to practice mindfulness we need to engage in a lengthy, guided meditation, sit still on a yoga mat for a full hour, or receive some type of special training. This simply is not true. While a mind-body practice is something that can grow, expand, and develop over time, it can start with small, practical moments throughout your day. In fact, sometimes these brief moments of mind-body awareness benefit us more, helping us to stay connected and integrated as we move through our busy, responsibility-filled lives.

Try adding five minutes of deep breathing and paying attention to your body before you roll out of bed in the morning. Maybe you use your walk between the CTA stop and your office to intentionally move your body and release unwanted physical tension. Practice sequentially relaxing your muscles from head to toe before you go to bed at night. Give yourself a personal, check-in question each day during a coffee or lunch break, such as “How am I feeling in my body right now?” or “How is what I’m feeling physically in my body connected to how I’m feeling emotionally?” Regular, daily routines can be transformed into mindful moments throughout your day that facilitate an increased mind-body connection.

Explore a movement practice.

When we use our bodies we learn more about them. A movement practice can be anything that invites you to pay attention to and use your body. Walking, running, dancing, exercising, and playing sports are all examples. Maybe you simply add a walk around your block every evening before you eat dinner, watch Netflix, or rest on the couch. Maybe you try out that new pilates or yoga studio down the street. Maybe you dust off your bike and make it a goal to use it more this summer.

It may be that you already regularly engage in a movement practice, so maybe a good goal for you would be to ask a corresponding mindful question each time before, during, or after you do. Examples would be, “How am I feeling before I go to my yoga class today? How am I feeling afterwards?” or “What was I thinking about when I was going for that walk today? Do those thoughts need more attention in my life?”

Alternatively, maybe it’s time to try something new. We can all get patterned in our movement, and there’s power in trying something new. When we use our body in a different way, it requires us to stay mindful and connected to it in a different way too.

Work with a counselor.

A trained counselor is someone who can help you to increase your mind-body connection. The counseling process includes increasing a person’s awareness of their thoughts and feelings, which, of course, live inside of our bodies, as well as helping them understand the motivation and reasons for their behaviors, which are also carried out in our bodies. Counseling can be a great tool for understanding the specific ways that your mental and emotional experiences relate to bodily, physical ones. This can help a person generally, and if they are coping with something specific, such as anxiety, depression, or trauma, as described above.

If you are interested in understanding more about how your mind and body are connected, counseling may be a great place to start. While there are specific counseling approaches that incorporate movement, the body, and mindfulness, most likely doing any personal, therapeutic work will also lead to mind-body change. In order to connect with one of Spring Tree’s counselors and explore counseling as an option for you, reach out to us here.

Practice rest, relaxation, and stillness.

It goes without saying that the forces of our society often counter rhythms of rest, relaxation, or stillness. We encourage productivity over pause, we promote to-do lists over break-taking, and we applaud being overloaded, overworked, and over-scheduled. Openness, margin, and space are difficult to find. We tend to equate “more” with “better,” but sometimes “less” really might mean “more.”

Rest does not have to be something that is earned, which we engage in only if we have worked hard enough or strived until it’s no longer a choice. Rest is a necessity. It’s something both our mind and our body needs. When we slow down and rest, we give our body time to catch-up from all of the stresses experienced in a day, whether that’s mental, emotional, and/or physical. It gives a chance to actually be mindful, present with what is, and notice what our minds and bodies need in order to recuperate. It’s difficult to know and experience an integrated mind-body connection without being still enough to even notice it.

What can you do this week to rest? Is there something you can cross off your to-do list that can wait until later? What helps you relax? Can you add more of that into your schedule? This might feel extra challenging in our fast-paced, busy world, but try adding even just one minute of stillness into your day. Set a timer if you need to. If it’s too hard to just be still (which is normal, by the way!), try quietly focusing on your breath during this time. A brief moment like this might feel insignificant at first, but it’s a way to actively practice providing yourself with space in order to focus on your mind and body, and it may be one of the most important steps you can take toward an improved mind-body connection.

Our mind-body connection is happening every day, at all times, whether we are aware of it or not. You may be someone who has already explored and benefited from some of the reflections, explorations, and tools offered in this blog, or it all may be totally new to you. Either way, we can all benefit from taking a few steps toward an increased mind-body connection. We may feel more integrated and grounded as a result, and most likely that will have a ripple effect on our mental and emotional health. What will be your step? Pause for a moment, notice your body, take a breath, and go for it.

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