Mindfulness And The Body
What Your Body Has in Mind
When You Don’t Mind Your Body
Do you spend so much time in your head that you’re disconnected from what’s going on in your body? Your body is alive with energy that constantly changes and your physical sensations are intimately related to your thoughts and emotions. When you’re emotionally upset this is reflected in your body.
Remember the Stress Response? Your mind is constantly trying to keep you safe and when your mind perceives a threat, it sends out a message that leads to the release of adrenalin and cortisol. Recall that these powerful hormones prepare you for a flight or fight response. Your heart rate increases, your blood vessels constrict and you sweat. Your muscles prepare for action and the pupils of your eyes open wide.
Unfortunately, with chronic stress the persistent release of these hormones causes your body organs to be damaged leading to all kinds of nasty health problems and diseases. You’re probably starting to see how important it is to maintain a state of mindfulness regarding your physical sensations and to actively create relaxation in your body in order to overcome the harmful effects of stress. There’s a direct connection between your body and your mind. If you relax your body, your mind relaxes and vice versa.
When you’re emotionally upset how is this reflected in your body for you personally? Do you experience shallow breathing, diarrhea, sweating, your heart pounding, headaches, tension in your jaw or shoulders? Do you have “butterflies” in your stomach? Are you normally aware of the physical sensations you have in response to stressful thoughts and emotions? As you begin to concentrate on what your body’s feeling, you’ll find that your muscles automatically begin to release some of their tension.
You’ve also learned that your thoughts are very powerful things and that it’s easy to identify with them and get carried away. By bringing your attention to the physical expression of your thoughts and emotions, the experience is more distant and ‘selfless’. You can step out of the storyline. You now have another option for how you experience your thoughts and emotions. You can experience them more as a sensation rather than identifying with them by using the very personal “I”, as in, “I am angry” or “I am sad.”
Thoughts lead to emotional reactions, which produce physical sensations and responses. Understanding thoughts and emotions as a physical experience may be the most direct, as well as the easiest, way for you to recognize your various states of mind.
In some situations your main thought or emotion may not be that obvious. All that you’ll experience is a physical sensation. Body awareness allows you to catch stress and short-circuit it before it gets really out of control. You can actually use this awareness as a kind of barometer, a window to your emotional and mental status.
I want you to think of a situation that made you feel angry or upset. Focus on the sensations in your body as you think about this upsetting situation. Observe how they feel. What’s their quality? Are these sensations squeezing, pulsating, throbbing, hot, sharp, dull, jabbing, or heavy? Where are they located? Do you feel tension in your chest, abdomen, forehead, jaw, or shoulders?
Set your timer for two minutes and close your eyes. Bring your awareness to the nature of your physical sensations as you think about an upsetting event. Take a few moments to breathe deeply and calm yourself before returning to the book.
Were you able to feel the nature of your body in response to a mental and emotional upset? Could you just be present to what you were experiencing without any need to change the experience?
I would now ask you to observe what happens to your thoughts and emotions, in response to an upsetting situation, as you bring your awareness solely to the physical expression of the upset in your body.
Set your timer for two minutes. Close your eyes and observe what happens to your thoughts and emotional reactions in response to an emotionally upsetting event as you focus on your body.
As you stepped out of the story and focused on the physical feelings of the upset state, did the energy of the mental tension start to dissolve? What you’re trying for when you focus on what’s going on in your body when you’re stressed is to no longer be the “I” who is starring in an upsetting story. Instead, you refocus on the physical experience that’s occurring in response to the story. The next time you’re mentally or emotionally upset, consciously focus your attention on your body and its sensations instead of the storyline that’s talking about how upset you are.
Breathing is also a physical manifestation of your thoughts. You explored in the last chapter how breath control can make your mind and body relax when your mind doesn’t seem to want to. You can also use the breath to relax specific parts of the body. Bringing your attention to your body and focusing your breathing into the place of physical tension is a wonderful way to help further release this body stress.
In this next exercise, you will be imagining that you’re directly focusing your breathing into the area of physical tension. It’s like massaging a tense muscle to help relieve the spasm.
I want you to think of a situation that made you feel angry or upset. Focus on the sensations in your body as you think about this upsetting situation. Then consciously take a deep and calm breath and imagine that you’re breathing directly into and out of any areas of tension.
It may sound strange at first. You might be thinking, “How can I breathe into my eyes?” What I mean by this is that I want you to mentally send the breath to that area. Imagine that your breath is coming into and flowing out of the tense body part. With every breath out you’ll let go of some tension and promote a natural relaxation response. A relaxed body leads to a relaxed mind.
Set your timer for two minutes for this exercise. Close your eyes. Think of an upsetting situation and consciously direct your breath to the area of physical tension. Take a few deep breaths to calm down before returning to the text.
What happened to the body tension as you directed your breath, in a calm and deep manner, to that spot? Did you find that it helped that part of your body to relax? Using your breath in this way can really help to release tension.
The following are exercises that you can practice to help develop mindfulness of your physical sensations.
- For five to ten minutes in the morning and/or evening, sit quietly and simply observe the physical sensations in your body. Label them as you notice them e.g., “Now squeezing,” “Twisting,” “Throbbing,” or “Pulsating discomfort.”
- During the day, whenever you can, try to be aware of the physical sensations in the body that are present.
- Whenever an upsetting event arises during the day, pause and pay attention to what you’re feeling physically.
- Whenever a happy event arises during the day, pause and pay attention to what you’re feeling in your body.
- Choose an environmental cue that will remind you to be mindful of the physical sensation that you’re experiencing at that moment. This could be, for example, before you eat, brush your teeth, wash your face, take a walk, or answer the phone. Pause and pay attention.
- Set your wristwatch or cell phone so that an alarm goes off every two to three hours to remind you to be mindful of the physical sensation in that moment.
- Put Post-it notes up around your house, in your car, or at work to remind you to be mindful of the physical sensations in that moment.
- If you’re bringing your awareness to your body as often as you can during the day, you have an opportunity to encourage mental and physical relaxation and decrease your tendency toward stressful reactions.
- When you’re under stress, bring your attention to the place where you’re experiencing the physical sensations. Then consciously bring your breath to that place and imagine breathing in and out of that site until you’re feeling relaxed.