Use the Mind-Body Connection to Your Advantage

by S.D. Shanti, PhD.
Originally published September 2001 at HealthAndAge.com. Updated and modified March 2020

Introduction

Ancient cultures and philosophers made reference to the mind-body connection long ago. Now modern research confirms that this connection indeed exists. One place where this connection is strong is the relationship between your emotions and the production of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (also called adrenaline).

When people experience heightened emotions due to stress they produce more stress hormones. Frequent or lasting stress and feelings of upset translate into more hormones being secreted. These in turn contribute to increased wear and tear on your heart and a decrease in your immune system’s ability to respond and protect you from bacteria and viruses. It also can contribute to increased risk of anger or aggression.

Stress, Emotions and Health

While stress and negative emotions are two different entities, they are often intertwined. Sometimes, stress can trigger negative emotions. Other times, negative emotions such as anxiety and worry may cause a person to behave in ways that generate even more stress for themselves.

Stress in and of itself is not bad, and a little bit of it helps us to improve our performance. But when stress becomes too much or prolonged, it is harmful.

Likewise, everyone experiences negative emotions from time to time. In small amounts these are not harmful to health. But when negative emotions become part of an on-going way of responding to situations, the risk of illness increases.

Research shows that an excess of anger and anxiety (along with variations of anxiety such as excessive worry), can be harmful to your heart. These emotions increase your physiological responses to situations; and in turn, this creates an added burden for your heart. Too much stress is also associated with an increased risk of depression.

Being proactive against your negative emotions will help you achieve two things:

  • You will reduce the risk of harmful consequences of stress upon your body and upon your interactions with other people;
  • You will have a clearer mind that allows you to respond in the best way possible.

Understanding Negative Emotions

Emotions are made up of two components: thoughts and your bodily reactions. How you view a situation will affect how you will react to it.

If you are feeling scared, worried or anxious, chances are that you are expecting something bad to happen. If you feel angry, it is likely that, underneath your anger, there is a feeling that you have been wronged or that the situation is unjust.

When you feel such emotions, it is likely that your breathing and heart rate become faster than normal. The muscles in your shoulders, arms and back may become tense. You may experience unpleasant feelings in your stomach.

Stop Negative Emotional Reactions

You can reduce the intensity of your emotional response to a situation by looking for the underlying assumptions or thoughts. If you are worried, ask yourself “What are you worried about?”, and “Why are you worried?” Perhaps you fear a “worst possible outcome,” when in fact, it is not likely to happen.

If you feel angry, try to understand why you are upset. Look at your thoughts that underlie your anger. Many times people feel angry when they think that someone has deliberately hurt them or offended them.

Find an Alternate Perspective

If you are angry, worried or upset, challenge yourself to find a different perspective or explanation that can reduce the intensity of your emotions.

When someone is unpleasant towards you, you can tell yourself that maybe they are having a bad day. Looking for alternate explanations that are not personal can help to defuse your anger or other negative feelings.

When situations and people upset you, try to see things in terms of the big picture. Most likely your entire happiness does not depend upon one situation or one person. While it is true that situations and people can make your life unpleasant and difficult at times, you can take steps to control the impact on your health and emotional well being.

What You Can do When Your Anger is Justified

Of course there are times when anger is justified. However, the problem is that when we give in to anger, it clouds our ability to see and think clearly. And when anger escalates, it also increases the risk of aggression and violence.

In such moments when you feel angry, you must remind yourself of the following phrase: “Am I controlling my anger, or is it controlling me?”

In such instances, you have to engage in self-talk that soothes your upset and calms you down. You can try phrases such as “I need to stay focused on what is most important in this moment” or “This is wrong but getting angry won’t help me to solve the problem.” You can also say things like “By calming myself, I will be much more effective in responding to whatever is making me angry.”

You can also use your body to support your efforts to defuse your anger. Breathe deeply from your belly and exhale slowly. Do this as often as you need.

You can also engage in physical activity to help blow off steam. If you are homebound and cannot go outside for a walk, then look at what you can do in the privacy of your room. For instance, can you dance or do jumping jacks? Alternatively, can you do the dishes or vacuum your home?

Constructive physical activity in response to anger is like pulling your foot off the gas pedal of a car.  You make it go slower and thereby reduce the risk of a crash. Once you do that, you will be better able to respond to the situation from a calm place.

When you calm yourself, you are more likely to respond constructively rather than in unhealthy or in ways that are potentially harmful to you and others.

When anger is justified, it makes sense to speak up or speak out in a calm and constructive way. Other times it is best to just back off and cool off because the consequences of expressing your anger in an unhealthy way will be counter-productive. If you are dealing with another angry person, then giving into your own anger will only fuel escalation and can even lead to aggression.

Lastly, never punch a pillow – or anything else – to vent your anger. It is counterproductive and in fact can increases the risk of aggression by escalating negative emotions.

Pay Attention to Your Breathing

When you find yourself angry or upset, stop and take a look at how you are breathing. Has your breathing become suddenly faster? If so, breathe more slowly and deliberately. For more information on how proper breathing can help you manage your negative emotions, please see the article “Take a deep breath… and relax.

Practice Your Skills to More Effectively Manage Your Negative Emotions

Leveraging the mind-body connection consistently to your advantage takes practice, but the results are worth the effort.

Practice consists of regularly doing focused deep breathing for periods of ten to fifteen minutes a day. If you don’t have that much time, then do what you can. Even a little bit is better than none.

Additionally, you can practice searching for alternate perspectives when you experience negative emotions.You can take examples of upsetting situations from your past and use them to practice this skill.

Review these situations without being critical of yourself.

Ask yourself if you could have avoided a misunderstanding by changing your perspective. Try to identify the thought that was underneath the anger. Then try to challenge that thought with a perspective that is less upsetting.

Start first with simple examples of past experiences. These can be situations which were annoying but not overly significant. One example is an experience you might have in a store while shopping. Then, you can build up to more significant incidences that involve your family or co-workers. Again, seek to find alternate perspectives that may could have eased a tense or upsetting moment.

Please bear in mind that these are general principles and need to be adapted to your particular situation.

If you are worried about your escalating emotions such that you may pose a physical risk to yourself or others, you must seek professional help immediately.

Try to find a mental health professional who can help you or a hot line where you can connect with resources. While you are doing so, it is important that you take regular breaks to practice deep slow breathing such that you are always brining yourself back to your calm center. For a quick reminder, here is a rapid Rx for Hope.

Seek Positive Mind-Body Synergy

When you do the above steps, you train yourself to respond in ways that reduce the likelihood of negative mind-body synergy. Instead, you increase your chances of creating a healthier, more positive mind-body synergy.

Deep belly breathing, accompanied by slow exhalation increases your feeling of calm. It also helps your body by reducing the release of excessive stress hormones.  

The faster you can switch to deep belly breathing with slow exhalation, the faster you will feel better.

You may still experience negative emotions, but you will feel them less intensely; and the less intensely you feel them, the better you can function. And the better you can function, the better you will feel about yourself, even if things are not going as you would like them to.

Why Practice?

The benefits of practice include less stress, anxiety or anger in response to upsetting situations. Remember, anger, anxiety and worry interfere with your sense of wellbeing. They are a waste of your energy and will leave you feeling drained. More important, too frequent and too intense negative emotions will harm your health.

Lastly, ask yourself whether it is better to invest a bit of time now and reap the long-term benefits of good health, rather than getting sick or damaging relationships that you value.

Remember

Pay attention to your thoughts! Find alternate perspectives and slow down your breathing whenever you are upset. Engage in healthy and constructive physical activity. Doing so, will turn the mind-body connection to your advantage, even in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

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