Intricate mix of body and mind affect the way we feel
Our senses see, hear, feel, taste and smell the outside world. These impressions awaken mental activity. We think, remember and visualize. At the same time, our body also occupies our consciousness. Our heart pounds. Our stomach rumbles. Our muscles tighten. We sweat. We hurt. We act.
There are times when these parts work in harmony, and other times when we feel overwhelmed. If we feel flooded by our inner world, whether because of emotions or sensations or thoughts or circumstances, these various parts of our experience tumble in upon us in a jumbled mass. We could improve our feelings if we could learn how to tease apart the components of our experience.
Typically as we grow we only have limited guidance in the art of inner management. To supplement the knowledge we have picked up in our journey, we can find many new ideas that can help us improve our understanding of the body/mind connection.
Natural response to threat isn’t always appropriate
When we perceive a threat to our safety, nature ramps up our body and mind into a powerful state of arousal to prepare us for rapid, highly charged response. When we’re fighting for our lives, this biological stimulation is critical. However, in civilized life, intense biological reactions are often triggered in situations that are not at all dangerous. When we watch a disaster on the news, vent frustrations about work or are stuck in traffic we find ourselves facing the full brunt of nature’s arousal, including pounding heart, dry mouth and muscle tension.
These bodily reactions give us a natural kick to prepare us to confront danger. However, unless we are in hand to hand combat, our danger-based thinking leads to inappropriate responses that are more likely to create problems than solutions. If we accept too readily our fight-or-flight impulses, and go along with the feelings of emergency arousal, we behave aggressively, lashing out in anger, and hurting and upsetting those around us.
Bottled up feelings burn under the surface
Anger, aggression, frustration, fear, the emotions associated with fight-or-flight arousal may become part of the background noise of our mind. If these feelings simmer under the surface, the hormonal effects continue to operate, even as we try to shut these negative feelings out of our mind.
Stress feels bad, and leads us to do things to escape like taking substances, running away or shutting down into depression. And stress is bad for our health. Researchers have discovered that our immune system is less able to fight off disease when our minds are stressed, angry or depressed, and our immune system is healthier when we are in a good mood and networking with supportive relationships.
As we wish to become healthier and more balanced we need to reduce the effects of stress. One way is to learn about the body reactions, and reduce fight-or-flight arousal before it starts. We can find many strategies for putting on the brakes, such as time-outs, positive self-talk, deep breathing, and relaxed prayer. We also need to reduce the causes of this arousal by reducing arguments and feelings of victimization.
Sexual desires compel our feelings
The body/mind connection is at its most intricate in the mix between love and sex. Love and lust cascade over each other, at times pulling us into situations we barely understand. Sooner or later we discover the many components of love: the desire to be seen and respected, to transcend the self, to serve another, and to satisfy the quest for pleasure and release. As we grow wiser, we learn to steer through these needs and beliefs, to distinguish the parts that are long lasting from the parts that are fleeting, so we can maintain the healthiest approach to ourselves and others.
Learn how to handle appetites wisely
To motivate us to survive, nature outfitted our bodies with powerful desires, drawing us towards food, shelter and sex. These feelings drill right down into the core of our being, and when pleasure calls it can carry the full force of natural desperation.
When we glance at the freezer and visualize ice cream, our brain wiring triggers reactions that can be as powerful as the need to stave off starvation. And when the flow of sexual desire starts, we may find ourselves swept into a rapidly moving river as old as creation.
In our pursuit of pleasure we may be compelled to do things that hurt us, such as overeating or risky sex. We may even be seduced into giving ourselves pleasure by ingesting substances that stimulate our pleasure centers, inducing ecstatic feelings typically associated with peak life events. Sadly this high can never be sustained, and once we start saturating our brain centers with pleasure inducing substances, we have a harder time feeling satisfaction from life’s normal pleasures. Our reliance on such stimulation may lead to addiction, disgrace and death.
Self-control isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
Our appetites move us towards the object of our desire, and if we want to stop this movement we make the choice to stop. But self-control is a weak and clumsy tool for coping with our impulses. The harder we try to stop doing something, the more we focus on it, and the more wrapped up we get in it. Instead, we can satisfy our desires in safe ways that build us up, rather than drag us down.
To protect us from surging natural desires, civilization has provided many safe outlets. We feel the pleasure of home and comfort, of praise, of artistic delight, of service to others. With practice, we can make the mental leap that links these more sublime pleasures to the same pleasure centers nature intended us to use for our survival. For example, a concert violinist during a particularly moving passage or a mother teaching her child how to walk may be moved with the same ecstasy as we expect would be associated with sex.
Trying to stop our free-running self indulgence goes against the grain of a culture that tells us we can have anything we want. To help ourselves, we may need to replace the normal cultural attitude with more cautious ideas, which just so happen to have been taught by all the religions of the world. While we are all too familiar with the pleasures of indulgence, we need to become more consciously tuned in to the benefits of moderation.
Pain also pulls our attention
Pain is valuable only if it helps us avoid bad situations or warns us of medical problems. Any other time, pain is a distraction, and chronic pain can spoil the quality of our lives. As we grow older and face increasing aches and pains, we can help our quality of life by learning how to deal with this challenging aspect of the body/mind connection.
While we are hardwired to react to pain, there are choices in the way we think about it. That is, when we feel pain, our thoughts may make it feel better or worse. By focusing on our pain we could be aligning more of our mental energy around it than we need to. Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book Full Catastrophe Living describes his work teaching hospital patients with unmanageable pain how to reduce the impact of pain on their quality of life.
Relieving muscle tension relieves stress
One way we habitually bottle up mental tension is to tighten up our chest and shoulder muscles. This muscle tension restricts breathing, and reduces the flow of air in and out of our lungs. We can express mental tension in other muscles, clenching jaw or calf like worry beads. Our habit of expressing mental tension in our muscles interferes with spontaneity, holding us rigid in body and mind. We can’t “let go” and we feel and act like we’re stuck.
Unraveling the body/mind knot
Our body and mind work together so intricately we have a difficult time locating the key to unlock our tension. Many people use jogging, walking and other exercises as a way to unload stress. While exercise has an overall beneficial effect, we can learn more specific techniques to enhance relaxation, peace and harmony. With soothing, calming thoughts, peaceful safe images, natural breathing, and relaxed muscles, we can work at the important task of becoming more poised, more comfortable, more effective people.
Yoga is an ancient system that teaches the principles of healing and integrating body and mind. Yoga classes teach stretching, strengthening and balancing exercises along with a philosophy of peaceful introspection, diet, meditation and prayer. There are other approaches to accomplishing the same goals. For example, Tai Chi emphasizes movement and balance, while that philosophy also teaches wisdom of body awareness and energy flow.
Diverging destiny of body and mind
At times the body and mind seem to be going their own separate ways. For example, as people grow older, while the skin wrinkles, the mind may grow sharper, wiser and more vital. Within our cultural language are many examples of a soul disengaged from our physical body. Whether we reach out to a God who has no physical body, or angels, or departed loved ones, or near-death experiences we may accept the existence of a “spirit” or “life force” that exists outside the limited span of biological life.
Religions describe the life of the soul in various ways. Some people believe in continued existence in heaven and hell, others have a notion that the soul somehow lives on its own without a body, while still others believe the soul takes on birth after birth until final liberation. Belief systems that include the survival of the soul can provide a healing perspective as we develop a satisfying narrative of our journey through life and death.
Getting smarter about body and mind
Learning the connections between body and mind opens a whole new range of tools that we can use to improve the quality of our lives and our feelings. Whether we learn these methods from dance instructors, stress relief workshops or a yoga instructor at our local gym, by incorporating these valuable principles into our working plan, we can use them to improve our effectiveness and sense of well-being.
See also: Anger, Breathing, Self-talk, Sex, Soothing, Trauma, Yoga
Wherever you go, there you are, mindfulness meditation in everyday living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
The Tao of Natural Breathing : For Health, Well-Being and Inner Growth by Dennis Lewis
The Emotional Brain : The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life by Joseph Ledoux
The relaxation and stress reduction workbook by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman and Matthew McKay
Full Catastrophe Living : Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn