In my practice, I am acutely aware of many different ways, both physically and emotionally, in which my clients experience stress. Understanding the mind-body connection provides a useful framework for understanding our stressors and our abilities to cope. Moreover, I have found that taking the time to explain the science behind often prescribed relaxation strategies can help clients feel this connection better as they implement these strategies in their lives.
What is the mind-body connection?
The mind-body connection is both how our mental states influence our bodies AND how our physical states influence our thoughts and feelings. For example, fear and anxiety can lead to increased muscle tension, heart rate, sweating, etc. And physical pain can lead to feelings of anxiety or depression, especially in the long-term.
The mind-body connection is generally quite adaptive, as physical symptoms, such as pain, and associated thoughts and feelings can trigger us to assess our health and seek treatment if needed. Moreover, our thoughts and feelings can quickly and efficiently get our bodies ready to act in a way that can keep us safe.
Our body’s physiological response to stress is most widely known as the “fight-or-flight” response, which refers to the triggering of our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) in response to an acute stressor.
The SNS is a part of our central nervous system (CNS), and activates us to confront or flee from stressors we may be facing. This system is useful for various situations but can become problematic when it goes into overdrive or is sustained for prolonged periods of time.
Fortunately, the CNS is also composed of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which works to dampen the activating sympathetic response. If we think of the SNS as “stepping on the gas,” we can think of the PNS as “pumping the breaks.”
Both systems are equally important and are in a constant “dance” in our bodies to help keep our vital organs functioning. However, when prolonged stress or anxiety puts the SNS in overdrive, finding ways to promote the PNS can help us to feel more balanced both mentally and physically.
What can I do to de-stress?
Relaxation exercises, including deep belly breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic training, and guided imagery can be extremely effective tools to manage the physical symptoms of stress.
Studies have found that relaxation exercises call upon our PNS (our “breaking system”) when our SNS response to stress has our system in overdrive.
Relaxation exercises can help us feel calm and refreshed, have clearer thinking, and increase our awareness to better manage our sources and symptoms of stress.
While different strategies work better for different people, I typically like to recommend deep belly/diaphragmatic breathing to clients who are beginning to explore these techniques, as it is one of the simplest relaxation exercises (See link below for a useful tutorial).
The beauty of deep breathing is that once we have some practice with this exercise, it is very easily accessible in that you can call upon it anywhere–at home or on the go.
For those just starting to experiment with relaxation strategies, I recommend starting to practice these techniques at times when you are less anxious before calling upon it when experiencing heightened symptoms of stress.
By doing this for as little as a few minutes each day, you can actually build your ability turn on your PNS during times of stress. Like any other new skill, it may take some practice, but is worth the investment of your time, especially if you are struggling to manage symptoms using your current strategies.
If you have any inquiries about the mind-body connection and the practice of deep breathing, or are interested in psychotherapy to cope with stress, please contact us at 619-354-4027 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Deep breathing tutorial: