It has become very clear to me that I know what is going on in my mind when I recognize sensations in my body. When my stomach grips, I know that I am nervous about something. When my jaw grips, I am usually feeling anger. When my physical energy feels hyped up and I talk excessively or can’t relax, I feel out of control. When my body feels like lead and I can’t find any words, I feel depressed. When my chest feels tight and I can’t breathe deeply, I feel anxious.
Physical sensations like these have the power to draw us away from feeling in balance or at peace. We can’t access the present moment; the sensations in our body are too distracting. We become drawn to regrets about the past or fear of the future. Just as our minor aches and pains may offer clues that we are developing a physical illness or an over-use injury, so our tight muscles and lapses in energy may signal the presence of a challenge to our mental health.
Some of us have predispositions, in the form of hormonal imbalances or wiring in our brains, that make it more difficult for us to feel at ease with our thoughts. We may seek relief from negative feelings through substance abuse, eating disorders or other behaviors that make us feel balanced for a time but are destructive in the long run. These negative behaviors do not have their roots in love or self-care. Often there are long-term consequences to these destructive behaviors, not only for us but also for others. It would change the dynamics of our society if the skills of mindfulness that draw us over and over again, throughout the day, to recognizing our body’s search for homeostasis were taught at a young age.
If we have a predisposition to mental health issues or just occasionally feel anxiety or depression, taking care of ourselves holistically can ease the flow of our day to day living, even when we are taking prescription medication. I have proven this to myself over and over again. I can 90% of the time trace depression or anxiety to how I took care of myself the day before: #1 on the list is dehydration. It always tops the charts. The #2 culprit comes from my list of “usual suspects”: lack of sleep, brain fatigue from too much work, poor food choices, too much screen time, lack of vigorous exercise or being around toxic negative people for too long.
Aside from these day-to-day self-care challenges, I can also get caught up in “default” negative thinking patterns from my past. When I feel unworthy or unloveable, I know that I need to reach out to friends who encourage me to find myself again. Or, sometimes, I turn to affirmations, guided meditations, or an inspiring book to change my unproductive thinking process.
Getting my mind back in a good place can be challenging. I find inspiration in the work of these neuroscientists:
- Dr. Dan Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, concluded that ten minutes of focused breathing improves the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. He reached this conclusion with no prior knowledge of yoga or meditation. He states that the prefrontal cortex is responsible for our ability to feel compassion and empathy. It also helps us to feel “tuned-in” to our feelings and to the feelings of others.[i]
- Dr. Adrian Raine, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Neurocriminologist, has shown that negative emotions, violence, and neglect affect the wiring of the brain. In his book The Anatomy of Violence, he notes that meditation can permanently heal the brain in a way that reduces violent tendencies.[ii]
- Dr. Willoughby Britton, a Neuroscientist and Professor at Brown University, has shown in her research that the focus and non-judgment that we learn from meditation helps us to become happier.[iii]
- Dr. Sara Lazar, a Neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, has done research that shows meditating 40 minutes a day increases the grey matter in the hippocampus. The hippocampus has less grey matter in people who are depressed or have PTS.[iv]
These are some of the things in my “emotional first aid kit” What are some of yours? Please let me know if any of these ideas resonated with you?
[i] Dr. Dan Siegel – Home. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://drdansiegel.com/
[ii] Department of Criminology. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://crim.sas.upenn.edu/people/faculty/adrian-raine
[iv] Sara Lazar, Ph.D. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nmr.mgh.harvard.edu/~lazar/