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.

Take a Deep Breath and Relax

By S.D. Shanti, PhD. Originally published in 2001 in HealthAndAge.com; updated and revised March 2020

Introduction

Breathing. It is something you have been doing since you were born and do without a second thought. The interesting thing about breathing is that it is automatic and at the same time, partially within your control.

Proper breathing offers you many health benefits. Awareness and modification of your breath is an effective tool for managing negative motions such as fear and worry.

No matter where you are, or in whatever kind of situation you are in, your breath can serve as an anchor to still your mind when it wants to race in the direction of unwanted thoughts.

Become Aware of Your Breathing

The first step in using your breath as a tool to help manage your emotions, is to pause and reflect on your breath.  Do you generally take slow deep breaths? Or do you tend to breathe in a shallow way?

From this initial awareness, you can move on to observing which parts of your body you are using as you breathe. Are you breathing in a way that your belly actively expands and contracts with each breath?

Next, notice how your breathing pattern changes in response to various situations around you. How is your breathing pattern connected to your thoughts?

Note your answers to these questions as you continue to read this article, and see what might be applicable to your situation.

What Goes on When You Breathe?

Breath and the act of breathing are the basis of life. That is how we get the oxygen we need for our body to survive, and that is also how we eliminate carbon dioxide.

What is Proper Breathing?

You are breathing at your best when the exchange of gasses is occurring to your fullest extent. Proper breathing is also characterized by slow, steady and deep breaths. It is the kind of breathing you do when you are asleep, and involves the diaphragm, a major muscle that sits below the lungs and above the abdomen.

You can tell if you are using your diaphragm fully by looking at what happens as you breathe. Is your belly gently moving in and out as you inhale and exhale? If so, it is likely that you are breathing properly.

What is Improper Breathing?

Improper or inefficient breathing is generally characterized by a shallow pattern that involves the upper part of the chest and shoulders rather than the abdomen and diaphragm. So instead of the abdomen moving, the shoulders and upper chest are more active. In addition, this kind of breathing can be irregular and fast.

Take a look at how you breathe. If you find that you are using your shoulders more than your abdomen, it is likely that you are not breathing as fully as you can.

Why is Proper Breathing Essential to Wellbeing?

When a person does not breathe properly, they are not exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide efficiently. As a result, people with poor breathing could feel tired.

Additionally, poor breathing patterns are associated with anxiety, panic and worries. While poor breathing is not a cause of anxiety, the two are intimately connected with one another.

When a person feels anxious, they may begin to breathe faster than usual without even realizing it. The fast breathing can serves as a signal to the individual that things are not going well. As a result, this may make a person feel even more worried or scared; and this can lead them to keep breathing faster and taking shallow breaths.

Additionally, there is the very real possibility that rapid shallow breathing brings less oxygen to the lungs, making a person feel worse. This serves as a further signal that something is wrong.

In such situations, if a person slows down their breathing at the first sign of anxiety, they will have more control over their negative feelings.

When Can Deep Breathing Help You Cope Better?

Deep breathing is a tool that you always have on hand. It can help you be at your best, no matter what the situation.

Here are some examples that show how deep and steady breathing can be useful when:

  • Finding yourself feeling anxious or worried –  even when you cannot clearly identify the cause of your worry;
  • Dealing with cravings – such as for a particular food item, or for a cigarette;

  • Discussing important matters with a family member, with whom you have a history of conflict;

  • Being assertive and standing up for what you want – be it at home, work or in any other setting;

  • Dealing with invasive medical procedures such as having blood drawn, getting scoped or having an eye exam;

  • Awaiting news such as lab test results.

Barriers to Proper Breathing

Some people may have a medical problem that prevents them from expanding their abdomen and extending their diaphragm fully. If you have such difficulties, speak with your health care provider, and see what they can advise you.

Many times, even if a person has difficulty with abdominal or belly breathing, chances are there is still room for improvement. For instance, you can learn to be aware of the connection between your breathing patterns and your emotions, and consciously do belly breathing to regulate your breathing pattern when feeling tense.

If you do not have a medical problem, but nevertheless find yourself having difficulty breathing to your fullest capacity, try the following:

Empty your lungs as much as you can, and then take deep breaths. As you breathe out, exhale as fully as possible. Then, focus on your abdomen and push it out, expanding it slowly while you are breathing in.

Some people may be reluctant to breathe fully with their belly, not because of medical reasons, but because they think it makes them look fat. They think a relaxed abdomen is unattractive, and hold in their abdominal muscles tightly. Similarly, tight clothing such as control top pantyhose or undergarments can block your ability to breathe fully.

Remember that fashion does not always dictate what is best for our health. If you choose to keep wearing tight garments, give yourself periods of time during the day when you can enjoy deep and full breathing, without being restricted by tight clothes.

Attend to Your Posture

If you spend long hours at a desk hunched over a key board, it is possible that you are curving your body in a way that prevents you from breathing fully.

As you work on increasing your frequency and technique of deep breathing, be sure to attend to your posture.

Make the necessary corrections if needed, so that you return to a correct position. If you are not sure about your posture while you work, or if you have a tendency to start out straight, but then slump forward the longer you sit at your desk, here are a couple of ways that can help you return to a more ideal posture.

You can observe yourself in a mirror or window pane periodically to make sure that you are on track. You can also use your capacity for self-awareness to observe your posture periodically. When you work long hours, you may consider setting a timer to assist you in checking you posture – for instance, once an hour.

If there are people around you with whom you feel comfortable, you can ask them to periodically take photos of you so you can track how your posture changes over the course of the day, as well as get specific details about what exactly you may need to correct it.

Practice Makes Perfect

Your ability to breathe deeply and regularly can be enhanced through regular practice.

Set aside five to ten minutes a day and practice. Some people find it best to practice in the morning, before starting their day. Others find this more useful as a way to relax after a long day.

Try sitting in a comfortable chair as you practice. Alternatively, you can also lie on your back – on the bed or floor – with your arms and legs comfortably extended.

If you fall asleep while practicing, it is likely that you are tired and need the sleep. Get some rest and practice later when you feeling more awake.

To practice on a regular basis, it is helpful to schedule a specific time of day. You can write it in your calendar or daily planner and set up a “deep breathing appointment.” By putting it into your daily schedule, you are more likely to successfully practice.

Remember, the more often you practice deep regular belly breathing, the better you will become at it; and you can more readily go into a deep and slow breathing pattern when you are responding to difficult situations.

Variations on Practice

You can count your breath in cycles of four if you like. You may find it helpful in terms of keeping a steady rhythm. Upon inhaling each breath, you can number them, “one…two…three…four…” and then return to one, and start over again.

Some people find it helpful to rest the palm of their hand on their abdomen as they are practicing breathing. This is yet another way to draw your attention to your breathing, and not let your mind wander.

Watching your hand rise and fall on your belly gives you an indication of how much you are moving your abdominal muscles. You can also place your other hand on your chest, if you wish to highlight the contrast between deep breathing and shallow breathing.

Breathe Deeply and Reap the Benefits

With regular practice, two things will happen:

  • Your overall level of reactivity to difficult and worrisome situations will be reduced. Fewer things will bother you, so you will have less reason to feel tense or anxious.
  • With practice, you can learn to train yourself to immediately invoke a state of relaxation. You can think of it as a tool that you can use as needed in difficult situations.

Please remember that the above information is educational. If you are experiencing difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, please contact your physician or other healthcare provider as soon as possible.

Insights into Health Behavior

Curious about what influences people’s behaviors around health?

Or are you trying to figure out some of the issues around your health behaviors – such as flossing more often or exercising regularly. Here is a chapter that I wrote in 2016 that you may find useful. It’s from this book published by Colgate and although it is intended for dental professionals, it’s written in a style that is accessible to anyone.

In this chapter I help you analyze the influences upon your own or other people’s behaviors and guide in the application of research based understanding of these behaviors. If you are interested in a live webinar that offers you insights into health behaviors, please let me know and I’ll do one if there is enough interest.

Welcome!

This blog has been a long time in the making…and now the online debut coincides with difficult times for all of us. We are in a situation that we could not have envisioned, and that is making us stressed at best and at worst fueling panic and despair.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel and there are many things one can do while in the tunnel to make life easier to bear. We can learn new coping skills and practice existing ones. We can be mindful of avoiding harmful ways of coping, be they unhealthy eating, smoking, alcohol or other methods.

Soon I will be offering live webinars and call-ins so that we can connect and shore up our resources and remember to stay focused on what is most important in the face of all that is urgent.

Please subscribe to keep in touch and receive forthcoming prescriptions along with articles that you will find helpful any time but especially so now – in the time of the Corona virus (aka Covid-19) pandemic.

If you have specific questions, or want me to write about something in particular, please reach out to me via the contact form.

I would be grateful if you can help spread hope and help share this blog among your friends, family and social networks.

Thank you!

Sincerely,

SD Shanti