Mind, body and the impact of stress
“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, plan, express ourselves 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. Mind and body are intimately intertwined and interdependent. Each affects the other.
Take a moment to think about what happens to your body when you are stressed. Muscles tense, the head aches, the heart rate picks up, breathing quickens – and they’re just the classic signs. Through these symptoms, the body communicates the presence of stress to the brain, and this in turn only increases mental stress. 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..
Research into mind-body medicine is revealing effective ways for us to manage our stress using the body as well as the mind. Mental stress triggers bodily responses, but we can intentionally change those responses to affect mental stress. We can purposefully amend our posture, stretch the body, and change the breath to manage stress.
It’s a two way street: mind affects body; body affects mind. 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.