When we think about psychological difficulties, we often think of these as being purely in the mind. In some of my other blogs I’ve spoken about the link between mind and body, and this is something I work with a lot in my therapy sessions with clients.
This is particularly relevant with issues of anxiety; where the fight-flight-freeze system comes into play. This ancient pathway in our brains allowed us to detect and respond to threats before we even had a conscious awareness of them. Nowadays of course often the ‘threats’ are more likely to be psychological (fear about a situation for example) rather than a physical threat such as being attacked by a wild bear. However, our bodies still react in the same way, by preparing our bodies to fight, run, or stand very still and hope the bear doesn’t notice us. This is why stress and anxiety tends to lead to symptoms such as racing heart, tight muscles and increased breathing rate; all things that would help us to fight, run or stand very still.
We often might think of needing to use our minds (thoughts) to calm ourselves, and certainly in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy this is an important part of learning to manage anxiety. However, we can also use our bodies to calm our minds. As well as the messages coming from our brain to our body to say ‘quick, get ready to respond’ our bodies also send messages back to our brains. So if we can do things with our bodies to calm, that in turn can send messages of calming back to our brains. A good example of this is breathing: In flight-fight-freeze mode our brains’ automatic response is to send a message to our bodies to make breathing shallower and faster in order to get oxygen to our muscles to prepare to run, fight or stand really still. If, however, we over-ride this and purposefully slow our breathing to take deeper, slower breaths, that will send the message to our brain to say ‘it’s ok, we don’t need to be anxious’. Some people find using a breathing square or star can be helpful. If you imagine the shape and trace round it in your mind, breathing in as you trace along one side, and out as you trace along the next and so on.
Using progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is another body based technique that can be really useful. This involves working through the body from feet to head, tensing and then relaxing different parts in turn. There are many scripts available online, or even YouTube videos which take you through a PMR exercise. Again, this helps calm the mind by sending messages from the body back to the brain. Even just going for a walk can be really useful when we are stressed or anxious. At times of anxiety or high stress our bodies get flooded with hormones, including adrenaline. This is what tells the body to prepare to run, fight or stand really still. All the time high levels of adrenaline are present in our blood we will be in fight-flight-freeze mode. Adrenaline is used up by our muscles, so doing activities that use our muscles will reduce the amount of adrenaline in our system. So things like going for a walk are great for reducing adrenaline.
Most people anecdotally have probably found that when we are stressed or anxious going for a walk or taking 10 deep breaths can be useful. As we can see there is a very real reason for why this can help; our bodies can be used to calm our minds.
Dr Emma Stevens, HCPC Registered, is an experienced Clinical Psychologist. She has an integrative approach drawing on Cognitive Behavioural, Systemic and Psychodynamic models, as well as Attachment Theory. Emma sees individuals primarily for sort-term work. Emma is available at our Lewes Practice.
Further reading by Dr Emma Stevens