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.