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Mind and body - breathe easy

If ten years of regular yoga practise has taught me anything, it is that the mind and body connection is not just an ancient philosophical concept of the East. It is a very real science and doesn’t require copious amount of herbal tea, tie-dye clothing, downward facing dog poses, or one single chant of ‘Om’ to understand. Our thoughts can affect our physiology, just as as much as our physical state can radically alter our state of mind.
 
Our bodies are always responding to our thought processes. Take breathing as one of the primary gauges of mind matter. When we are relaxed in our thoughts, our breath is often slow and steady. If we’re excited, we may gasp. If we panic, our breath can become very shallow and rapid. We sigh in disappointment. We are often left breathless in surprise and shock. If you think about it, most of our emotions have a breath reaction.
Posture, heartbeat and energy levels are other common indicators of what thoughts are occupying a busy mind. Someone’s slumped shoulders and strained back can demonstrate being ‘weighed down’ by problems overwhelming their brain.

In terms of energy levels and what’s going on in the mind, it’s hard to muster energy when you’re feeling glum, but you can bet a bit of anger can spur you on to play a competitive sport with a bit more oomph. You should see me on a squash court when I’m having a bad day!

Yet, with all this direct confirmation from own bodies, so many of us continue to buy into the idea that the mind and body are separate entities. Maybe this is why stress - often wrongly labeled a thing only of the mind - costs millions in sick days each year.

Stress is often triggered by thoughts or emotions and is something we can all identify with. It can strike us at any time with varying intensity, from the minor annoyances of being stuck in traffic on the way to an important meeting, to the extremes of dealing with divorce, job loss and bereavement.

In physiological terms, stress is a perfectly healthy reaction designed to help us deal with a short-term situation. A hit of adrenaline will, in most cases, positively enhance our mental and physical performance in a given situation. I’ve always been a bit of an adventure junkie myself – I love a good adrenaline rush.

When stressed, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in to prepare us for ‘fight or flight’ mode: speeding up heart rate; slowing digestive and urinary systems to conserve energy for active muscles and brain function; increasing blood pressure and sugar levels; releasing more blood from the spleen; and dilating the bronchioles in the lungs for us to have a greater breathing capacity.

If ‘stress responders’ go into overdrive with prolonged strain, however, this is when it may be harmful, and, in extreme cases, even fatal. Excessive and unresolved stress can lead to high blood pressure, physical exhaustion, coronary thrombosis and heart attacks. Other long-term physical issues can include a depleted immune system, hormonal imbalances, sleep disruption, digestive problems, such as stomach ulcers, muscle tension leading to poor posture, and hair loss.

Prolonged stress can also cause serious emotional and mental health problems, such as anxiety, fear, overwhelm, depression and confusion. 

So, when considering health and wellbeing, it makes perfect sense to me that we treat both our mind and body with care and see them as connected. I always aim to find that balance between relaxation and healthy exercise of both – not just because I’m another thirty-something trying to find myself.

And, while I’m not here to try to convert everyone into yoga, meditation or a hippy mind-set – as much as I reckon that would be great fun – I just ask you to open your mind a little and explore the common sense behind these ancient approaches to holistic health. 

 

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