Body Awareness, Exercise, & Mental Health
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In 2004, my husband and I suddenly and unexpectedly lost our first son, Jacob, to stillbirth. Testing revealed a congenital uterine anomaly that could not have been seen on a routine ultrasound as the cause of our loss.
After undergoing 2 procedures, my now 17-year-old son, Michael, was conceived. However, I was diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening complete placenta previa, landing me in a hospital bed for the final 5 weeks of my pregnancy under strict bed-bound supervision. Around 33 weeks’ gestation, it became clear one morning that Michael needed to come out immediately to insure our survival. Following my c-section, my son and I were finally safe after what seemed like an eternity. Over the next 4 weeks, my husband and I faithfully visited Michael in the NICU until he had developed sufficiently to be brought safely home.
I was soothed and restored over time by a good support system and my beloved running, cycling, and swimming. In addition, I decided to take up Yoga. One day in class, I was in a Yoga posture called the pigeon. With my left leg forward and right leg back, unexpected emotion bubbled up. I quietly sobbed throughout the remainder of the class, after which time I felt as though a giant weight had been lifted off of me. While there is still trauma associated with this time to this day, I was better able to move forward and connect with our son. What had happened here?
Recently I was asked to speak with a group of psychotherapists about the importance of body awareness and exercise to mental health. They were curious about how emotions trapped in the body can be released as a body takes a form or opens up. The right exercise can free up areas of the body that contain trauma, memories, and feelings that have been locked up, sometimes for years. This post will take a look at why this is so.
Examples of the Mind-Body Connection
I invite you to sit for a moment with a soft gaze or closed eyes and imagine 2 scenarios. First, imagine a lemon that you cut into quarters. Bite into this imaginary lemon. Notice what happens in your body. Secondly, bring to mind a memory that was very embarrassing for you. Now notice what happens in your body. Perhaps you noticed your mouth watering after the first example. The second one may have caused you to blush, develop tightness in your chest, or have a hot feeling wash over your body.
Next, sit or stand in a hunched-over posture. Allow your shoulders to slope and head to come forward. Try to take a deep breath in this posture. Now adjust your posture so that you are in good alignment – shoulders down and back, chin slightly tucked, lengthening down your spine with ears over shoulders over hips and both feet on the ground. Take a deep breath. Notice how much easier it is to take that breath and how much better you feel!
It has been long-established that the mind affects the body. Newer science tells us that the configuration of the body affects the mind as well. Take the work of social psychologist Amy Cuddy, whose TED talk references how power poses like standing with feet apart and hands on the hips changes our neurochemistry to that of confidence extending to the way we are treated by others.
Wisdom of the Mind and of the Body
The language of the mind, or mind brain, is thought or cognition. This enables us to describe our internal state and communicate it using words and ideas. The language of the body is emotion and sensation. The heart brain and gut brain provide much important information and wisdom that, if ignored or discounted, gives us an incomplete picture and renders us much less effective in our lives.
Publications like The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk and When the Body Says No by Gabor Mate suggest that the body very intelligently houses the biopsychosocial and emotional history that has been experienced while living in said body and draws the line as needed when we are unable to set a limit in our lives.
Embodiment and Mental Health
To be embodied means that you are able to inhabit your body comfortably and fully in a way you can tolerate and that feels safe. Embodiment is a prerequisite for the development and maintenance of good mental health. Why?
The ability to regulate our nervous systems underlies good health on a number of levels. One can only regulate the nervous system in partnership with the body. Overthinking keeps us stuck in our heads as thoughts spin faster and faster without the benefit being anchored in the body. Dysregulated, we quickly become overwhelmed by strong emotions and unable to navigate relationships with others well. Suppressing trapped emotions, or energy in motion, is like trying to hold a beach ball underwater and requires an enormous amount of energy. It diverts our life force and dims our light.
We need to know what the body is saying to us. “Listen to your body” may be an oft- used phrase, yet it is true; we would be wise to listen to its “whispers” to avoid having it “scream”. Emotions and sensations can be nuanced, making it potentially challenging to read this type of communication if it has been ignored and/or overridden consistently. We need to become fluent in the language of the body.
Psycho-emotional states always have a physical manifestation. When I see a new client, I ask what story their body may be telling via nonverbal communication. Does the person make eye contact? How do they hold their bodies? Do they fidget during sessions? How does all of this translate to what is needed to help them become whole?
The ability to set firm but not rigid boundaries with self and others is necessary for a balanced life. Being a doormat sets us up for anxiety, frustration, and burnout as the priorities of others or even our own minds supersede and crowd out what is best for us. Physical awareness of where we end and others begin literally sets the stage for setting effective boundaries in our lives.
The Consciousness of the Body
It has been said that consciousness resides in the fascia, the thin, almost clear connective tissue that surrounds, encases, and connects all muscles and organs. Consciousness is also housed in the body’s cells. Working to free up the fascia restores vitality both physically and emotionally. I teach self-myofascial release and over the years have found it to be a very effective tool to help facilitate good physical and mental health for myself and others.
The iliopsoas muscle is a deep hip flexor that is well-known to store accumulated stress, tension, and trauma in the body. Self-myofascial release, massage, and/or stretching can assist in releasing these energies and states, contributing to improvements in our mental health.
The diaphragm is a muscle at the bottom of the ribs that assists with breathing, especially the ability to take a full, deep breath into and out of the lungs. In Chinese medicine, the lungs are associated with the emotion of grief. Shallow breathing prevents us from feeling this emotion and others. If we can free up the diaphragm through breathwork and exercise, we can relax the body and experience better mental health as well. If we can breathe, we can grieve. Stored emotions can literally make us sick.
Exercise and Mental Health
Exercise can be defined as intentional physical movement done to care for the body and the mind. The various aspects of physical fitness include cardiovascular, strength, flexibility, mobility (strength throughout our joints' ranges of motion), and balance. Each of these can be addressed with the right exercise that is enjoyable or at least tolerable.
Appropriate exercise positively affects mental health in all of the following ways:
- Decrease in stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline
- Increase in serotonin, endorphins, dopamine, GABA, all of which curb anxiety and improve mood
- Increase in BDNF, a protein that encourages the growth of neurons in the brain
- Better posture and alignment
- Improved body image
- A sense of play to offset excessive seriousness and intensity in one’s life
- Better physical health and functioning as a direct result of exercise
- Improvements in sleep and nutrition associated with exercise positively affecting health and functioning
Appropriate exercise sends messages to the subconscious that “I am worth taking care of” and “I can”. A sense of worthiness and confidence thus create better mental health.
Techniques for Strengthening the Mind-Body Connection via the Body
The following “bottom up”, i.e. body to mind, techniques can be used as tools to create better body awareness and promote better body & mind integration. Some may be appropriate to do yourself. If you have significant trauma or severe anxiety or depression, however, consultation with a qualified therapist is recommended.
Breathwork The many types of breathing exercises range from deep belly breathing to the 4-7-8 breath to box breathing. Inhaling deeply through the nose and exhaling a long full breath through the nose or mouth will generally have a calming effect.
Body Scan or Yoga Nidra Meditation A simple body scan can be performed by momentarily focusing on each body part, relaxing into this while remaining connected with the breath. Yoga Nidra is similar but is generally performed while lying down and listening to a recorded script in which you notice, feel, and release each body part.
TRE (Trauma or Tension Releasing Exercises)/ Shaking Following a few simple warmup exercises, the person lies down with heels together, knees bent falling open, feet flat, and arms by the sides. The natural vibrations, or tremors, are allowed to express through the body as the person learns to stop holding onto tension, thereby releasing trapped stress and emotion.
Somatic Experiencing A therapist creates an environment whereby the client can experience tolerable doses of the distressing emotions, sensations, and memories and return to safety and calm, balancing out the nervous system.
Somatic Tracking The person focuses on observing the distressing sensation or symptom in the body through a lens of safety and without emotional reactivity, which deactivates danger signals in the brain.
EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) Tapping The individual taps lightly on a series of 9 acupressure points while talking through distressing feelings or situations, eventually formulating a turnaround statement and neutralizing the associated upset.
Your body is your home for this lifetime and can be your best ally and friend. Treat him, her, or them with respect. Body awareness and exercise are powerful tools to enhance both physical and mental health. One cannot have optimal mental health without being connected with the physical body. Learn how to partner with your body and decipher its messages, and you will be rewarded with better physical and mental health!