Do your shoulders reach for your ears when you’re under a deadline? When you’re stuck in traffic, does your breath get shallow? Do you clamp your arms to your sides when you’re frustrated?
These are all examples of the mind-body connection in action, but you can use the connection to ease your stress, not just add to it.
Let’s take the example of being stuck in bad traffic—and late, too—a situation that always winds me up tight. Why does the breath get shallow? In stressful situations, it’s common to tighten the pelvic floor.
Try this experiment. Notice your normal, resting breath. Now tighten your pelvic floor, also called the pelvic diaphragm, by doing a Kegel. (The previous article on breathing exercises, which is just below this one, gave some good examples of how to tighten your pelvic floor.) Keep it tight and notice how each breath gets smaller. That’s because your lower diaphragm and the diaphragm that powers your lungs are functionally linked.
You can give yourself some relief by relaxing your pelvic floor when stress strikes. For me, the easiest way to do that is to use the breathing exercise noted in my previous article, where I contract the lower diaphragm to start each exhale and then let each inhale soften my belly and pelvic floor.
Emotions don’t just affect the mind. Each feeling creates a pattern in the body. Try this exercise. Think of something mildly disappointing, perhaps when a friend couldn’t meet you for lunch. Re-live the experience in your mind and let yourself feel like you did.
Notice that your body changes. Your face, throat, chest, abdomen, and limbs all respond to your feelings. Notice what happens.
Now—without changing your breathing or moving at all—try to think yourself out of disappointment. You’ll notice that you really can’t change your emotional state without also allowing your body to move out of its associated pattern. So, get up and move around to release the disappointment and move into a neutral or, better yet, a happy state.
If you stay still after unpleasant experiences, those feelings can get stuck in the body. When those experiences are repeated without counterbalancing movement, the effect on the body is dramatic. Going to the gym or yoga class after work is effective, because you shake off the emotional baggage you accumulated during the day.
Think encouraging thoughts—that certainly has been shown to improve health—but also use movement to achieve a positive mind-body connection.