A man thinks as well through his legs and arms as his brain. We exaggerate the importance of the headquarters” —HD Thoreau
We are the thinking species. Our prefrontal cortex– the part of the brain that enables us to make decisions, rationalise, plan, express ourselves, think ahead and imagine – forms a significantly larger proportion of our brain than that of any other species. No wonder we tend to rely on our mental capacities to analyse our way out of problems, including those that bring us stress. But we experience life through both our mind and body – and we can manage stress more effectively if we use both. While the Western tradition treats them as two separate things, it has become evermore apparent that mind and body are intimately intertwined and interdependent. Each affects the other.
Take a moment to think about what happens to your body when your mind is stressed. Muscles tense up, the head begins to ache, teeth clench, the stomach tightens, the heart rate picks up, breathing becomes quicker and shallower – and they’re just the classic signs. There are plenty of other physical symptoms of stress that are personal to each of us. Through these symptoms, the body communicates the presence of stress to the brain, and this in turn increases mental stress which goes on to further fuel this cycle. No wonder we try to block them out. What’s more, we’re so busy trying to think our way out of the stress, there’s not much chance we’re going to pay attention to our body too. But bodily symptoms aren’t just a sideshow. They may be precisely where we should be looking to ease stress.
Advances in research into mind-body medicine, an approach that acknowledges the effects of thoughts and emotion on physical health and vice versa, are revealing effective ways for us to manage our stress using the body as well as the mind. Mental stress triggers responses in the body. But we can intentionally change those bodily responses to affect mental stress. We can purposefully amend our posture, move and stretch the body, and change the breath in ways that reduces our response to stress. It’s a two way street: mind affects body; body affects mind. If we address the mind aspect alone, it can be like putting a new cap on an old bottle – the contents may remain. But easing the physical aspects of stress may change the way we view our problems and help us approach them in a more grounded, compassionate and detached way.
Next time you experience stress, try turning your attention to your bodily experience. Notice your breathing, the ground beneath your feet or sensations that naturally arise in your body. Use these present-moment physical experiences to ease the troubles of the thinking mind.