Stress is an unavoidable part of life. It’s our body’s response to any challenge that requires attention or action, and it can detrimentally affect the mind and body depending on how we respond to it.
Everyone is likely to experience varying stress levels during their lifetime. Triggers range from low-level daily hassle – traffic jams, running late for an appointment, a tight work deadline, childcare – to major-scale challenges, like serious financial issues, the death of a loved one, or getting divorced.
Sometimes stress can be positive, motivating us to perform well in a situation, for example, starting a new job, traveling, going on a first date, or buying a new house.
However, the adverse effects of stress can severely affect our mental, emotional, and physical health – which is why we need to manage it.
While exercise, a healthy diet, and quality sleep are essential to stress management and good overall well-being, we can also incorporate mind-body techniques to help further manage and reduce stress.
How does stress impact our minds and bodies?
When we feel under pressure, our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) prompts the stress response – ‘fight or flight’ – to protect us against the challenge or perceived threat we are encountering.
Our bodies release stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, to help us cope with any perceived threat or danger. Our breathing and heart rate increase as our muscles contract, ready to take on the challenge (fight) or seek safety (flight).
The physical effects of stress can show up in the form of headaches, tense muscles, diarrhea or constipation, insomnia, chest pains, panic attacks, high blood pressure, and digestive disorders such as IBS or indigestion.
Why are mind-body techniques useful for stress management?
Our mind governs our entire body on every level.
All our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes can affect our physical health and well-being, whether positively or negatively.
There is a connection loop between our mind and body, with constant communication flowing backward and forward between our mental and physical states. Even though we may not consciously make the connection between our mental health and emotions and our physical condition, they are all intrinsically connected.
So, in a nutshell, if you overlook the health of one, it will impact the other.
How do mind-body techniques work?
We have already looked at the physical impact of stress on the body and, in cases of prolonged stress, how the standard protective mechanisms of the physical body become overburdened.
The overall aim to reduce stress is summed up by Eva Selhub in “Mind–Body Medicine for Treating Depression: Using the Mind to Alter the Body’s Response to Stress.”
“The goal of mind-body techniques is to regulate the stress response system so that balance and equilibrium can be maintained and sustained, to restore prefrontal cortex activity, to decrease amygdala activity, and to restore the normal activity of the HPA axis and locus ceruleus-sympathetic nervous system.”
(Selhub, 2007, p.5)
As an example, the practice of mindfulness works by interrupting patterns of negative thoughts. People prone to stress tend to dwell on negative expectations and hopelessness and are unable to disconnect from their worries. This never-ending loop of mental unease can lead to physical exhaustion.
Mindfulness requires the mind to focus attention on the ‘here and now,’ whatever is being experienced in the present moment, drawing thoughts away from dwelling in the past or focusing on future doom and gloom.
As a result, the body responds by slowing the heart rate down, continuing to calm and slow the breath, thus relaxing the body and releasing ‘feel-good’ hormones, like dopamine and serotonin.
Therefore the communication loop between the mind (mental health) and body (physical health) becomes positive.
Eight of the best mind-body techniques to bring more calm into your life
Practicing mind-body techniques will help you to counteract the fight or flight response, manage stress, and bring more calm into your life. But, like any new habit, it requires regular practice to feel the benefits.
It’s important to schedule time for self-care and relaxation, and to find mind-body techniques that you enjoy and that work for you. Here are our top eight recommendations to get you started:
1. Yoga, Qigong, and Tai Chi
While the Western world is more familiar with the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of Yoga, Qigong and Tai Chi, they all consist of healing movement exercises that incorporate body, breath, and mind.
Yoga is not just a way to stretch and improve your flexibility. Regular practice can help with physical and emotional problems. The breathing exercises, meditative states, and physical poses used in yoga all help to reduce stress and promote relaxation.
Similarly, there is an overlap between Tai Chi practices and Qigong, involving sequences of flowing movement, breathing, coordination, and a shift in mental focus to promote mind and body relaxation.
Meditation can help to increase awareness of the mind-body connection.
Originally, it was a practice associated with religious purposes, but these days it’s used by many as a way of unwinding and managing stress. The focus is to find a sense of calm by relaxing your mind and allowing the body to follow.
While several disciplines use different techniques to reach a state of deep relaxation, commonly, the practice is about sitting quietly, focusing concentration, and quieting the mind – in direct opposition to the effects of stress. The meditation process sends the body a quiet message to relax and, over time, will result in enhanced emotional and physical wellbeing.
If you want to try meditation, here are some helpful tips for your first meditation session.
Although mindfulness and meditation work together and can combine to boost mental and physical health, they have varying functions and are practiced differently.
Mindfulness requires you to be intentionally present in the moment without being judgemental. Unlike meditation, you don’t have to take time out and press pause on your day. It can be practiced for as little as five minutes, anywhere at any time.
Find out more about the ancient practice of mindfulness and how it can help relieve various physical and emotional problems caused by stress.
Breathwork has its roots established in yoga practice.
As we have already mentioned, stress can affect how you breathe, causing more shallow and rapid breaths, and limiting oxygen entering your bloodstream as your body prepares to deal with a threat and goes into a fight or flight response. When you slow your breath and consciously breathe deeply, your brain communicates to your body that everything is ok and it’s safe to relax.
Just as we have a sympathetic nervous system, we have a parasympathetic one, which responds to the breath by releasing feel-good hormones, e.g., serotonin and dopamine.
This short video, a Beginner’s Guide to Breathwork, explains breathwork and why it is so beneficial for managing stress.
5. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a deep relaxation technique used to control stress and anxiety. When we are stressed or anxious in our minds, tension builds up in our muscles. By tightening and relaxing these muscles in a specific order, one at a time, this tension can be released.
An essential part of the process is noticing where the tension is in your body. In addition, it has been discovered that the tension and relaxation of muscles also helps to calm and relax the mind.
A recent article in the National Library of Medicine highlights the effectiveness of progressive muscle relaxation on stress and its positive impact on anxiety and depression.
6. Art and Music Therapy
Studies have shown that participating in art and music therapy can alter moods, help manage stress, and increase feelings of wellness.
Similar to how meditation improves focus, becoming immersed in art or music can relax the mind and decrease the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body.
Art therapy can include any creative expression from painting, sculpture, pottery, and collage to basic coloring in, while music therapy includes songwriting, making music, listening to music, and using music as a means of reflection to enhance mood and relaxation.
Both are powerful tools for managing stress and relieving symptoms of various mental, physical, and health-related conditions – thus an aid to all-around well-being.
7. Practicing Gratitude
One of the benefits of practicing gratitude is that it’s proven to enhance our emotional well-being and mental health. It shifts focus from negative thoughts to positive ones, triggering the brain to release the ‘happy hormones,’ dopamine and serotonin.
As we have discussed, stress fosters feelings of negativity, but if someone is grateful, the feeling of negativity cannot co-exist with such positivity; in a separate blog post on gratitude and mental health, the analogy is made to gratitude acting like shining a light into darkness – it can never be dark if a light is shining.
Research shows that practicing gratitude can help reduce stress and improve mental and physical health. It enables us to do more positive things in life, which will mean feeling more positive about ourselves and the world around us.
In short, gratitude can become a practiced attitude and a habit to develop to overcome negativity and better manage stress.
8. Touch Therapies
The term ‘touch therapy’ encompasses the broader categories of energy healing, including practices like Reiki, Massage, and Acupuncture. The human body is designed to heal, but it can take time, especially if we are under a lot of stress. Touch therapies use energy healing to balance and support the body to heal itself; thus, the body’s natural healing process is stimulated.
Although not currently supported by science, the benefits of touch therapy may provide a calming and relaxing experience for the body and mind, helping to relieve stress and anxiety.
Finding which mind-body technique(s) works best for you
Finding the best stress relief strategies may take some experimenting. Likewise, some strategies may take a bit of practice before seeing the full benefits.
A good starting point is to decide what’s most appealing to you and how it will fit into your lifestyle. For example, depending on your personality, does the thought of more exercise and flexibility appeal, or perhaps you prefer to pursue quiet reflection or a hands-on approach to energy healing?
Consistency is critical to seeing the benefits of using mind-body techniques to manage stress and improve your health. Hence, it’s important to be realistic about what time you have to achieve your well-being goals.
Commit to one technique to get started for at least a month to see what benefits and changes you reap.
Ultimately, you’re aiming to build lifelong, healthy habits with lasting benefits.
It can be challenging to open up and reach out for help when you’re struggling with stress or anxiety. It can be even harder to speak to someone you know.
However, if you feel you are experiencing higher stress levels than usual, or you would like to explore more ways to manage your stress effectively – then perhaps it’s time to reach out to a professional who can help.
Contact a team member at Tikvah Lake Recovery today, and find out how we can help you better manage your stress and reach your full potential.