Mind-Body Connection

This area of the Wheel of Health relates back to the inner ring of Mindful Awareness. It focuses on mind-body practices that can help you be more present and enhance your physical, mental and emotional health. It includes techniques that activate the body’s relaxation and healing response, such as breathing practices, meditation, yoga, and guided imagery.

History of mind-body connection

Awareness of the mind-body connection is not something new. For centuries, almost every system of medicine throughout the world treated the mind and body as a whole. But during the 1600s, the Western world started to see the mind and body as two distinct things. In this view, the body was considered more of a machine, with no connection to the mind at all.

There were some benefits to this Western viewpoint, including advances in surgery, trauma care, pharmaceuticals, and other areas of mainstream medicine. However, it also reduced scientific inquiry around humans’ emotional and spiritual life, and downplayed their innate ability to heal. Fortunately, this perspective started to change again in the 20th century. There was an increase in research related to the mind-body connection and scientists were able to demonstrate the complex links between the body and mind. In addition, this research confirmed the medical and mental benefits of meditation, mindfulness training, yoga, and other mind-body practices.

How does the mind-body connection work?

The mind-body connection is closely related to stress and how you deal with it. The body’s response to stress begins in the brain and spreads through the autonomic nervous system causing the release of powerful hormones, particularly cortisol and adrenaline. The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary body functions such as breathing, blood pressure, and heartbeat. It has two components: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems.  The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car – it triggers the “fight or flight” response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers.  On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake – it promotes the “rest and digest” response that calms the body down after the danger has passed. Each of these responses has a different impact on the body.

The hormones released during the “fight or flight” response have an impact on many systems within the body, including the immune system. Research has demonstrated that prolonged exposure to stressful events or situations contributes to serious diseases such as high blood pressure, heart irregularities, anxiety, insomnia, persistent fatigue, digestive disorders, mental health issues, and diabetes. In addition, stress can also impact lifestyle and behaviors that affect one’s health and wellbeing. For example, many people are more likely to eat poorly and neglect healthy activities, such as exercise, when they are under stress. The good news is mind-body therapies and practices can help reduce or even prevent the stress response from occurring in your body.

As mentioned above, mind-body practices involve techniques that activate the body’s relaxation and healing response.  When you are exposed to a stressor (say, rush-hour traffic), your response to the stressor determines how your body reacts. You might normally get tense, angry and honk or yell at other drivers who cut you off. However, you can deliberately change your response, through simple techniques like taking some deep breaths and relaxing the muscles in your neck and shoulders.  This response engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which decreases your heart and breathing rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.

Examples of mind-body practices

There are many strategies to help reduce stress and promote the relaxation response. Below are some of the more common techniques. At first, it may seem challenging or awkward to engage in these activities, but they are skills that develop over time with practice. It may also take some time before you experience positive changes, so patience is key. Try a few different approaches until you find the one(s) that feel most comfortable to you.

Progressive muscle relaxation: This technique involves slowly tensing and then releasing each muscle group in your body, starting with your toes and finishing with your head (or vice versa).

Meditation: The two most common forms of meditation in the United States are transcendental meditation and mindfulness meditation. In transcendental meditation, students repeat a mantra (a single word or phrase). In mindfulness meditation, students focus their attention on their moment by moment thoughts and sensations.

Paced breathing: When we are stressed, we tend to take shallow breaths. We can change this constricted breath and stress response by changing our breathing pattern. The 4/7/8 pattern is one example of paced breathing. To practice, breathe in through the nose for a count of four. Hold for a count of seven. Exhale through the mouth for a count of eight. Repeat these steps four times.

Guided imagery: This technique is a way of focusing your imagination to create calm, peaceful images in your mind, thereby providing a “mental escape.”  You can use an instructor, tapes, or scripts to help you through this process. You can achieve a relaxed state when you imagine all the details of a safe, comfortable place, such as a beach or a garden.

Sources:

University of Maryland Medical Center Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide

University of Minnesota Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing

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Mindful Parenting

I recently had the opportunity to facilitate a program on Mindful Parenting. I thought it might help to share some of the highlights, for those of you looking for a calmer, less reactive approach to raising your children.

The need for Mindful Parenting

How many of you have experienced any of the following:

  • You’re trying to make dinner, surf Facebook and answer your kid’s questions about homework all at the same time?

 

  • You’re reading your child a bedtime story while in your mind you are making a list of things to do after she goes to bed?

 

  • After arguing with your teen to come out of his room, get off his phone and engage with the family, five minutes later he calls you out for responding to a work email on your phone?

As author Kristen Race shares in her book “Mindful Parenting,” modern life is different than a generation ago. Many parents are struggling to juggle multiple roles. There are multiple electronic devices to distract us 24/7. Parents and their kids have demanding schedules, with little “down time.” For many of us, there are lingering financial worries as we continue to recover from the most recent recession. It’s no wonder she coins us “Generation Stress.”  And unfortunately, that stress is contagious – studies have shown that our children pick up on our stress even if we think we’re doing a good job concealing it.

Disengaging auto-pilot

Due to the many demands that we face in our day-to-day lives, many of us move through life on “auto-pilot.” Think about your daily commute to work – have there been times when you left home and arrived at work only to think “How did I get here?”  You know the route so well that you don’t have to consciously think through every turn along the way. You can tune out and run through that never-ending “to do” list in your mind. This automatic, mindless mode is not always a bad thing – it can be very helpful in establishing healthy habits like brushing your teeth or completing simple tasks like tying your shoes. It would be burdensome if we had to think through the steps every time we performed those tasks. But when autopilot takes over in more important areas of our lives, like how we engage with our children, it can lead to frustration and disappointment – for us and our children.

So how do we learn to disengage the auto-pilot and live more consciously? In one word: mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” It’s about awareness and intention. The folk singer Jewel (who has practiced mindfulness from a young age) describes it as “the gap between perceiving a thought and acting upon a thought, so that you can choose your action rather than have a reaction.” It is a way to create space so that we are less reactive to whatever life throws our way.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness, but they are typically broken down into two categories: formal and informal practice. Formal practice consists of dedicated time that you set aside to focus on awareness. Examples may include sitting meditation, breath awareness exercises, yoga, mindful walking and mindful eating. Informal practice refers to times when you are completely engaged in moment-to-moment awareness in a less structured way. Examples may include watching a sunrise, drinking a cup of tea, brushing your teeth, or washing dishes. Using an exercise analogy, think of formal practice as going to the gym or working out for a designated amount of time, whereas informal practice is like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking further away at work. It helps to include both in your mindfulness practice and you may find that the more you engage in formal practices, the more you find yourself being mindful in your daily activities.

Mindful Parenting

It’s probably no surprise that mindful parenting begins with you, the parent, committing to a mindfulness practice. In doing so, you will model positive behaviors for your children and you will approach your interactions with them in a different way. To modify a popular quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the person you want your children to become.”  If you’re feeling skeptical, there are studies that have demonstrated positive outcomes from this approach. Most notably, in a study conducted at UCLA, parents who practiced mindfulness for one year reported being dramatically more satisfied with their parenting skills and interactions with their children even though they had learned no new parenting practices. In addition, over the course of the year, their kids’ behavior also changed for the better. They got along better with siblings, were less aggressive and their social skills improved.

In preparing for my presentation, I relied on two main sources of information – the book by Kristen Race I referenced above as well as a book by Carla Naumburg, PhD, called “Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family.” Both books have helpful tips about how to build your own mindfulness practice as well as numerous examples of ways to engage your children in a mindful fashion. Below are two of my favorites – one for younger children and one for older children.

For younger children, consider trying “Stop, Drop, and Breathe.” This is an easy, quick and fun way to disrupt a difficult situation and breathe your way back into the present. Whenever you find yourself or your child spinning out of control, lost in thoughts or overwhelmed by emotions, remember to stop, drop and breathe: stop, drop whatever you are doing, and breathe deeply and intentionally. You can literally drop to the floor, which may get your children laughing, regardless of how grumpy anyone feels.

If you have older children (tweens and teens), does it drive you crazy how much they use the words “like” or “ya know” when speaking? It can be a challenge for all of us to eliminate filler words from our speech. Try an exercise to help focus on mindful speaking. You can even turn it into a game, in which family members gently remind each other when they mindlessly pepper their speech with filler words.

Getting Started

The key to mindful parenting is establishing a mindfulness practice that works for you. Many people ask how much time they should devote to formal practice. It is based on what works best for you, what you will do consistently. This is a skill to be learned – it will take practice. You can start small, maybe 5 or 10 minutes a day, and build up from there. Feel free to include a combination of formal and informal practices and most of all, remember there is no right or wrong way to do it. Give it a try and see what happens.